Can we protect ourselves from getting pregnant before we are ready to be mothers — if we are ever ready to be mothers? A new qualitative study by the Guttmacher Institute asked women their beliefs about whether they can actually prevent pregnancy themselves or if fate plays a role in pregnancy. The study also aimed to track whether or not these women use birth control consistently, and examined the relationship between their beliefs and behaviors.
The study, authored by Rachel K. Jones and others, reveals that "U.S. women hold complex views about their agency over pregnancy and pregnancy prevention," particularly when it comes to fatalistic viewpoints about conception. Unplanned pregnancy can be terrifying; you are faced with the prospect of growing another human being inside of you. It makes perfect sense that women's attitudes on the subject cannot be so simply categorized.
The report, entitled, “If I know I am on the pill and I get pregnant, it's an act of God”: women's views on fatalism, agency and pregnancy, will be published in the next issue of Contraception and defines fatalism as "the belief that life events are predetermined or controlled by outside forces such as God or fate." Jones and her colleagues sought to research this mindset to discover how fatalistic attitudes toward pregnancy inform the actions women take to prevent pregnancy.
As the study notes, half of pregnancies are unplanned, and many people in public health assume that these kinds of attitudes disrupt a person's decision to protect herself, because what's the point if she is just going to get pregnant anyway? Surprisingly, the results show women's relationships with their bodies, their beliefs, and their birth control are not that simple. Despite what many in the public heath field have assumed, "having fatalistic views about pregnancy does not preclude contraceptive use."
During the study, researchers interviewed 52 ethnically diverse, unmarried American women between the ages of 18-30 whose household incomes were 300 percent less than the federal poverty level. In other words, they came from the sociodemographic most likely to experience unplanned pregnancy. Thirty-seven out of 52 women "expressed some degree of fatalism" about pregnancy, while more women, 42 out of 52 of them, "believe pregnancy can be prevented" thanks to contraceptives and monitoring of sexual activity. Additionally, 26 out of 52 women told the interviewers that they had been using birth control correctly and consistently for the past year. Per the study, "Only a minority of women expressed solely fatalistic or solely non-fatalistic beliefs about pregnancy; the majority of respondents related a mix of both."
The research revealed a lot about women and their beliefs about agency over their own bodies:
1. Agency And Fatalism Can Actually Go Hand In Hand
As aforementioned, the majority of the interviewees responded to questions by expressing both a sense of having agency and a sense of conceding to fate in the same sentence.
Responses that demonstrated fatalism typically featured one of or a combination of these buzzwords: fate, destiny, God, and/or "meant to happen." Other women stated matter of factually, without any sort of spiritual undertone, that pregnancy simply cannot be planned and that it will happen when it happens. Since the only foolproof birth control is abstinence, you can't really blame a woman for feeling this way, though you hope that she will protect herself as best as she can. And, as this study has shown, a fatalistic attitude doesn't mean that she won't try. Jones writes, "...some women who expressed only fatalistic views towards pregnancy used contraception quite consistently, and most women who reported mixed views were also quite consistent in their use."
Women who exhibited a sense of complete agency over their reproductive systems directly referenced birth control, contraceptives, science, and biology in their answers. While many of the women acknowledged that birth control can fail, they also spoke of other options like utilizing two methods of protection and monitoring their fertility.
Most of the answers referenced both fatalism and agency, like this quote from Tamara, an interviewee:
This quote from Elena also expresses these mixed feelings:
Other women, like Cora, consider pregnancy to be under their total control:
2. Fatalism Can Help Women Cope With Infertility
Jones and the other researchers reference previous studies that demonstrate hopeful mothers commonly using fatalism as a healthy method of coping with their inability to conceive. They take the pressure off of themselves and instead place the responsibility in the hands of God or fate. It makes sense, then, that fatalism would commonly influence women who aren't even struggling with infertility. Per the study, "Given that women are not expected to have complete control over their ability to get pregnant it is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect them to believe that they have complete control over preventing pregnancy."
3. Doctors Need To Stop Assuming Their Female Patients Are Irrational
We already know that women are considered irrational and uninformed by sexist doctors. The authors hope that the results will reduce this dangerous behavior by medical professionals, as it proves that women's beliefs frequently do not stop them from utilizing birth control, and it still validates their complex attitudes. The report suggests "nonjudgmental reactions by health care professionals might encourage patients to speak openly regarding their concerns about contraception and their own fertility. Given that women do not have total control over attainment of a wanted pregnancy or even prevention of pregnancy, some amount of fatalism about fertility and one's ability to control it is a logical and pragmatic response."
Also, the fact that we can reproduce is kind of crazy, so these complex, nuanced understandings of our bodies are more than justified. The study continues, "At a minimum, providers should be aware that many women hold complex views about pregnancy and pregnancy prevention, and they should not assume that expressing a fatalistic outlook means that a particular woman is not, or will not be, a consistent contraceptive user."
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