A few weeks ago, I attended the annual conference of the anti-abortion group Heartbeat International. Even though the Supreme Court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade hadn’t yet been leaked, there was palpable excitement about the growing political momentum behind their cause. They needed only to point to the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, and the success of various “heartbeat bills” in some states that would outlaw abortion after six weeks of gestation. The conference leaders, however, warned that now was not the time to claim victory. After the demise of Roe, there was still much work to be done. “Post-Roe” was the theme of the executive roundtable session, where heads of anti-abortion groups came together to strategize about the next frontier in the movement. Among the attendees, some talked about targeting abortion pills, which are readily available on the internet. Others mused about what it might take to restrict abortion in left-leaning states.
In addition to coming up with new strategies for making any abortion impossible in the US, there was a powerful undercurrent pushing a far more ambitious future agenda: expanding the definition of abortion itself to include contraception. Some made allowances for barrier methods like condoms, which prevent fertilization of the egg before there’s an embryo. But others seemed to take issue with the whole idea—they considered anything that thwarted the meeting of sperm and egg to be unchristian. This opposition was not the focus of just a few extreme outliers, either. The conference organizers offered several sessions on the topic. “My goal is to expose the risks and dangers of our birth control culture,” one presenter promised in the description of her workshop.
These ambitions around birth control come at a time when contraception is already under assault. In 2020, the Supreme Court upheld a decision to allow employers with religious objections to abortion not to cover birth control for their employees; hundreds of thousands of workers may have lost access to it as a result. Last year, in Missouri, Republicans tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent Medicaid from paying for contraception. Now, with SCOTUS poised to curtail abortion access, activists will be further emboldened to chip away at birth control.
That enthusiasm was on full display at the conference. On the chat section of the conference app, there was a lively discussion about birth control. Father Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest who has been influential in the anti-abortion movement for decades, observed, “I can tell you that within the pro-life religious circles of pastors that I interact with, across denominational lines the awareness over recent years has greatly increased about how unbiblical contraception is.” Another commenter concurred: “Unbiblical and harmful to women’s bodies.”
Someone who identified as the client services director of a crisis pregnancy center wrote, “Our hope with the contraception curriculum/class that we are in the process of creating is that we will provide education on contraception in the same way that we provide education (not promotion) about abortion.” A few others said they thought it was wrong to use hormones to prevent an embryo from implanting in the uterus and bemoaned the practice of prescribing birth control to teens. “To think of all the babies we could possibly be ‘aborting’ as a result is horrific,” one wrote.
As part of the virtual portion of the conference, Heartbeat International offered a session for crisis pregnancy center workers called “Why Not Birth Control,” of which Mother Jones obtained a recording. The presenter, a former labor and delivery nurse-turned-activist, spent most of the session reciting a litany of hormonal birth control side effects such as blood clots and stroke. (There was little discussion of the fact that most are exceedingly rare.)
At the end of the workshop, attendees were asked to imagine the hypothetical situation of a “young, unmarried female client” who has had a pregnancy scare. The crisis pregnancy center workers, the slideshow says, should warn her about the side effects and risks of hormonal birth control and point out that birth control won’t protect her from sexually transmitted infections. Condoms might appear to be the perfect solution—no side effects, protection against STD’s—but apparently they too are a problem. The PowerPoint claimed that barrier methods like condoms are “often ineffective,” before getting to the overriding point and asserting that “the goal of birth control is preventing sexual intercourse from resulting in its natural, intended biological result: children.”
The anti-abortion movement’s arguments against birth control are mostly religious in nature, yet these Christian activists now have a powerful ally: the ever-expanding universe of secular wellness influencers who present on their social media accounts a polished and glamorous version of femininity untarnished by modern chemicals. For years, these militantly wholesome accounts have railed against additives in food and genetically modified ingredients and vaccines. More recently, they’ve added hormonal birth control to the long list of products they consider to be “unnatural”—and therefore unhealthy. Some have posted about a made-up condition called Post Birth Control Syndrome, for which they peddle pricey detox regimens of untested supplements and herbs.
Of course, it’s entirely fair to criticize hormonal birth control—for many women, its side effects really do outweigh its benefits. Yet wellness influencers often make claims about the pill that go beyond what the science has shown. On her blue-check verified Instagram account, a natural-living influencer with the handle @natkringoudis warns her 67,000 followers, “Women on the pill are less attractive to men according to various studies.” She adds, “Further to this, research suggests that women on the pill are attracted to less masculine men.” (That’s not true.) Another account, @reallygraceful, usually posts memes about vaccines, Disney, and pedophile politicians—but into the mix she sometimes throws in posts about birth control. She recently told her 87,000 followers, “[A]n entire generation of women was prescribed birth control from the age of 14 and now that same generation is dealing with PCOS, hormonal imbalances, depression, and infertility.” (There’s no scientific consensus that hormonal birth control causes any of these conditions.) Dr. Jolene Brighton, a naturopath who sells “hormone balancing starter kits,” shared that post with her 406,000 followers. “We were told to just take this magic pill & all our period problems would go away,” she wrote in a comment with the post. “Then we come off & those symptoms make a comeback. In the words of the great @llcoolJ, ‘Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.’”
Most of these social media personalities never mention abortion in their posts—yet pro-life groups have discovered that the influencers’ work dovetails with their mission. Lara Briden, a naturopath in New Zealand who calls herself “The Period Revolutionary” and wrote a book called The Hormone Repair Manual, posts to her 144,000 Instagram followers about things like dietary treatments for heavy periods and the risks of suppressing ovulation with hormonal birth control. Anti-abortion groups—including crisis pregnancy centers and Catholic archdioceses—have directed their followers to her website. “Are you ready to get off the pill…. for good?” one crisis pregnancy center asked in a post advertising a talk that Briden was giving. “Undoubtedly, side effects can be very discouraging and difficult to go through.”
It’s not just Instagram stars who are spreading disinformation about birth control. Former actress Ricki Lake just produced a new movie called The Business of Birth Control, which makes claims that doctors push hormonal birth control on naïve patients, failing to mention its side effects and risks. Yet as The Cut’s Lindsay Gellman points out, the documentary has some problems. “In brushing aside basic statistical principles like the distinction between correlation and causation, as well as general scaremongering, the film’s tactics are at best misguided and at worst dangerously manipulative,” she writes. The anti-abortion group Live Action, on the other hand, published a much more favorable review, with just one quibble: the film’s pro-abortion stance. “Alongside much commendable material exposing the dark side of hormonal birth control, one significant limitation of The Business of Birth Control is its apparent unquestioning acceptance throughout of abortion as a ‘women’s rights’ or ‘reproductive justice’ issue,” the reviewer writes.
Some groups that seem to be criticizing birth control only because of its supposed health effects are in fact connected to the pro-life movement. One example is Natural Womanhood, a site about the health risks of contraception whose tagline is “Know Your Body.” The group has more than 13,000 followers on Facebook, and says it receives 1,500 visits a day. Most of its posts are about “fertility awareness,” a method of avoiding pregnancy that has to do with tracking the menstrual cycle and physical signs of fertile periods like cervical mucus. Those who choose this method instead of hormonal birth control, the site says, “can experience the natural health benefits of ovulation.”
On the Natural Womanhood site, the bio of its founder, Gerard Migeon, does not mention that he has served on the board of a local crisis pregnancy center, or that Natural Womanhood has sponsored anti-abortion events. When I asked Migeon about the group’s position on abortion, he said in an email that Natural Womanhood does not “have any ‘formal connections’ to groups advocating for the end of abortion” and that the group simply wants “women to be better informed when making choices
concerning their reproductive health, especially concerning the use of birth control.” But in one of his posts, Migeon explicitly uses anti-abortion arguments, insisting that life begins at conception. Therefore it’s possible, even likely, that hormonal birth control causes abortion by preventing the implantation of the embryo in the uterus. “Even during the wildest times of my youth, I would never have wanted to be the cause of an abortion,” he writes confidingly. “Yet, there is a possibility that I have been responsible for one, unaware. How? Because of contraceptive methods that my wife and I used before we knew about the natural methods.” Lara Briden, the New Zealand naturopath, has partnered with Natural Womanhood to offer trainings about getting off birth control—though in an email she said she is “not affiliated with them in any way” and “100 percent pro-choice.”
In the coming months, we can expect to see further alliances between those who oppose birth control on moral and lifestyle grounds—fresh off the Roe victory, pro-life activists will be wondering how to expand their influence. Earlier this week, hours after news of the SCOTUS leak broke, Heartbeat International’s president showed up in my inbox, asking for donations. “What could be more newsworthy than saving and changing lives in your community?” he asked. “That work will continue. Even increase.” The subtext was clear: The movement’s fight to control reproduction has only just begun.
This article has been updated to include Gerard Migeon’s response to emailed questions, which came in after the piece was published.