IUDs are 20 times more effective at stopping unintended pregnancies than the pill. Why do so few American women use them?
The technology was not new, but it was still disruptive: a small, cheap piece of plastic, wrapped in copper wire, that could prevent pregnancy with a near-zero failure rate. Once in place, it would last for years.
The Dalkon Shield appeared in American drug stores in 1971; it wasn’t the first intrauterine device, but it was popular. The pill was now a decade old, and while still revolutionary, IUDs promised convenience that oral contraception couldn’t. The drug companies knew it. By the early ’70s, the Shield was one brand among dozens, and the head of family planning at Columbia was calling IUDs “the ideal” form of birth control. So simple you forgot they were there.
Two million women were using the Shield when, in 1974, the problems became too big to ignore. Stories were splashed across two columns in the New York Times: more than a dozen deaths and 200 infected abortions. Manufacturer A.H. Robbins pulled finally recalled the Shield in 1975. Fifteen years later, the company paid out a $2.5 billion settlement to thousands of women.
IUDs went from being the fastest growing form of birth control in the United States to being untouchable—a toxic product and an impossible sell.