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Methods of Birth Control and Family Planning: An Overview

Updated: Feb 23

There is a lot of confusing and contradictory information out there about different methods of family planning and their mechanisms of action and effectiveness. As a life issues organization, we wanted to do some research for you so that you can get this vital information from a trusted source. It is really important to know if the method of family planning you use aligns with your values.

All of our information has been taken from either the Mayo Clinic website, John' Hopkins, or the websites owned by the companies that produce and advertise the different types of contraceptives reviewed.

As we dive into forms of what people might call “birth control” or “contraceptives” lets define some terms.

Birth Control: The practice of preventing unwanted pregnancies, especially by use of contraception.

Contraception is used commonly to refer the prevention of pregnancy either through the prevention of fertilization or the prevention of implantation of an already fertilized egg/zygote into the endometrium.

This means that some hormonal methods of contraception (if they can prevent implantation), may act as an abortifacient in some cases. Through the blog we will draw attention to these methods through bolded text. The Equal Rights Institute has a great video about whether certain contraception methods can cause early abortions!.

Effectiveness is mentioned at the end of each method. You can learn more about how perfect versus typical effectiveness is measured in this article from Vitae Fertility.

Natural Methods


Abstinence is a free, 100-percent effective, method of preventing pregnancy with no physical side effects.

Mainstream discussions of abstinence have led many to believe that it is a naïve and unrealistic notion, but abstinence isn’t ignorance. It is the thoughtful choice to abstain from the only natural physical act that can create a new human being. If it is vitally important to your situation that no pregnancy occurs, we suggest considering abstinence. Take it as an opportunity to grow your intimacy as a couple in a different way.


- Free

- No hormones

- 100% Effective (barring divine intervention)

- No physical side effects

- Protects you from sexually transmitted infections (STI)


  • Can be difficult

  • Social stigma

  • Less easily achievable in a long term relationship

Natural Family Planning or Fertility Awareness

There are many forms of Natural Family Planning (NFP) or Fertility Awareness Methods (FAM). Most often people associate NFP with the temperature taking and calendar methods that were popular before the 1960’s. Natural Family Planning has come a long way since then! The most popular and effective forms of NFP are The Marquette Method, The Creighton Method, and the Billings Method.

How it Works

Pregnancy is only a possibility during a woman's fertile window. Natural family planning methods seek to identify when this is occurring using either hormonal testing or physical symptoms, or a combination of both. During the fertile widow of a woman's cycle, couples either abstain, or use a barrier method of contraception.


  • Protective of children at all stages of development

  • No synthetic hormones

  • Allows women to familiarize themselves with their body

  • Does not put the onus on the woman in the relationship to suppress her natural fertility

  • Is a joint venture between the couple

  • No physical side effects


  • May have a higher front end cost than most birth control methods

  • Does not protect against STIs

  • Abstaining during indicated times may be difficult

  • Depending on what method you choose to use it can be difficult to track the symptoms and is best done with training or guidance of a professional

  • Can be more difficult if you experience an inconsistent cycle

Each method will have its own typical and perfect use results. One example is the Marquette method that has a 98.4 % effective in perfect use and 98% effective in typical use rating.

For more information on FAM, we are hosting an event on Natural Family Planning on February 12th! Join us online!

Hormonal Methods

The Combination Pill

The combination pills contains both estrogen and progesterone. There are many iterations of the combination pill. The preferred frequency of withdrawal bleeding and the hormonal dosage may determine what type of combination pill is used (conventional vs. continuous dosing and monophasic vs. multiphasic). A prescription is required. Some of the major contraindications include (but are not limited to): being recently postpartum, being older than age 35 and smoking, having a blood clotting disorder, history of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, and having migraines with aura or diabetes. We suggest asking your doctor and pharmacist about contraindications that may apply to you.

Mechanism of Action

Combination pills suppress ovulation (or the release of an egg). They also increase the volume of cervical mucus and thin the lining of the uterus (endometrium) which may prevent implantation if ovulation suppression fails and a zygote/embryo is created.


  • May reduce menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) and PMS

  • May improve appearance of acne

  • Shorter, lighter and more predictable flow, or may stop cycle entirely

  • Reduction in menorrhagia and related anemia

  • Reduced symptoms of endometriosis

  • Lowered risk of ovarian, endometrial and colorectal cancers

  • May help increase bone mineral density

  • May attenuate unwanted hair growth as a side effect of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)


  • Skipping pills or taking them late may reduce effectiveness

  • Side effects may include: irregular bleeding, bloating, breast tenderness, nausea, depression, weight gain and headache

  • No protection against STIs

  • Increased risk of high cholesterol, heart attack and stroke

  • Increased risk of blood clots, especially for smokers and women older than 35 years of age, with a slightly greater risk of blood clots linked to pills that contain higher doses of estrogen

  • Increased risk of cervical cancer and breast cancer for women who are currently taking combined birth control pills, but this risk appears to gradually decline to normal levels once you stop taking the pills


A mini-pill only contains progestin and must be taken at the same time everyday. A prescription is required. Contraindications include but are not limited to: history of or current diagnosis of breast cancer, some liver diseases, undiagnosed uterine bleeding. We suggest you speak to your doctor and pharmacist before taking any medication.

Mechanism of Action:

The mini-pill slows an egg's progress through the fallopian tubes, thickens cervical mucus and alters the endometrium to prevent implantation of a zygote. The minipill sometimes also suppresses ovulation.


  • Can quickly become pregnant when use is stopped

  • Can be taken even if you have a higher risk of blood clots, migraines, high blood pressure or a high risk of heart disease

  • Are less likely than combined pills to interfere with breast-feeding

  • Lowered risk of endometrial cancer


  • Must be taken at the same time every day, follow up with a health care professional for details

  • No protection against STIs

  • Side effects may include: irregular menstrual bleeding, ovarian cysts, decreased libido, headache, breast tenderness, acne, weight gain, depression and hirsutism

  • Increased risk of ectopic pregnancy


In Alberta, the hormonal intrauterine devices (IUD) Kyleena and Mirena are most commonly available. They are T-shaped plastic frames that are inserted into the uterus, where they release a type of the hormone progestin. Mirena has a higher circulating levonorgestrel (testosterone derived pseudo-progestin) than Kyleena. A doctor would determine which IUD would be more effective based on several factors and would perform the insertion. A prescription is required. Contraindications include but are not limited to: a history of uterine or cervical cancer, uterine abnormalities e.g., fibroids, pelvic infection or inflammatory disease, and unexplained vaginal bleeding. We suggest you speak to your doctor and pharmacist before taking any medication.

Mechanism of Action:

The exact mechanism of action is unknown but it works through a probably combination of thickening the mucosal lining of the cervix, altering the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation of a zygote, and partially suppressed ovulation.


  • Long-term

  • Doesn't require daily action

  • Doesn't carry the risk of side effects related to birth control methods containing estrogen

  • Works for up to 5 years

  • Fertility returns quickly

  • May decrease menstrual pain and pain related to endometriosis

  • Can decrease risk of certain cancers


>99% Effective (it is it placed in the uterus by a health care professional and requires no action for upkeep by the wearer; there is no statistic for typical use)

Depo-Provera Injection

Medroxyprogesterone acetate, which is sold under the brand name Depo-Provera is an intramuscular injection that contains progestin. It is given every three months. Contraindications include but are not limited to: having unexplained vaginal bleeding, indications of potential osteoporosis, or a history of depression, heart attack, or stroke. We suggest you speak to your doctor and pharmacist about all the contraindications before taking any medication.

Mechanism of Action

Like most hormonal methods it suppresses ovulation, increases cervical mucus, and alters the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation.


  • Doesn't require daily action

  • Can decrease menstrual cramps and pain

  • Can lessens menstrual blood flow, and in some cases stops menstruation

  • Decreases the risk of endometrial cancer

  • Many experts believe progestin-only contraceptive methods, such as Depo-Provera, carry significantly lower risks of these types of complications than do contraceptive methods that contain both estrogen and progestin.


  • You might have a delay in your return to fertility. A normal cycle may not return for 10 months.

  • Does not protect against sexually transmitted infections

  • It might affect bone mineral density (the FDA suggests it is not used for longer than 2 years)

  • Side effects may include: Abdominal pain, bloating, depressed libido, depression, dizziness, headaches, irregular periods or breakthrough bleeding, nervousness, weakness or fatigue, and weight gain

94% Effective for typical use


In this method, a small patch that deposits estrogen and progesterone is placed on the skin every week for three consecutive weeks. No patch is placed on the fourth week allowing for withdrawal bleeding. A prescription is required. Contraindications include but are not limited to: Being 35 or older and smoking, having chest pain, weighing more than 198 pounds (90 kilograms), or having a history of heart attack, cancers, or migraines with aura. We suggest you speak to your doctor and pharmacist before taking any medication.

Mechanism of Action

As a hormonal method like the combination pill, the mechanism of action is to suppress ovulation, increase cervical mucus, and alter the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation of a zygote.


  • Doesn't require daily attention or having to remember to take a pill every day

  • Provides a steady dose of hormones.

  • It's easier to use if you have trouble swallowing pills.

  • It can be removed at any time, allowing for a quick return to fertility.


  • An increased risk of blood-clotting problems, heart attack, stroke, liver cancer, gallbladder disease and high blood pressure

  • Breakthrough bleeding or spotting

  • The birth control patch doesn't protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

  • Side effects may include: Skin irritation, breast tenderness or pain, menstrual pain, headaches, nausea or vomiting, abdominal pain, mood swings, weight gain, dizziness, acne, diarrhea, muscle spasms, vaginal infections and discharge, fatigue, and fluid retention

  • The patch may increase the risk of estrogen-adverse effects (such as blood clots) more than the birth control pill as it seems to elevate the circulating estrogen to a greater degree.

91-93% Effective with typical use

>99% Effective with perfect use

Vaginal Ring

A plastic ring containing estrogen and progesterone is inserted into the vagina for three weeks. After a week to allow withdrawal bleeding, a new ring is inserted. A prescription is required. Contraindications include but are not limited to: being older than 35 and smoking, taking certain medications used to treat hepatitis C. We suggest you speak to your doctor and pharmacist before taking any medication. Please mention especially if you are experiencing: diabetes with complications related to your blood vessels, medical history of blood clots, toxic shock syndrome, breast, uterine or liver cancer, or other liver disease, heart attack or stroke, migraines with aura (or, if you're over age 35, any migraines), uncontrolled hypertension, vaginal bleeding for unknown reasons, depression, gallbladder or heart disease, high cholesterol or high triglycerides.

Mechanism of Action:

Again, as a hormonal method like the combination pill, the mechanism of action is to suppress ovulation, increase cervical mucus, and thin the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation of a zygote.