A study in the journal Health Education and Behavior has found that birth control conspiracy theories affect the use of birth control by black men and women. The study authors said that over 30 percent of the 500 survey participants believed that medical institutions use poor and minority people as "guinea pigs" to try out new birth control methods. Of particular concern, black men who strongly believed that the government does not tell the truth about birth control safety were less likely to use any birth control method. Women with the same strong beliefs were less likely to use birth control methods prescribed by a physician, such as the contraceptive pill.
Encouragingly, the researchers - Sheryl Thorburn of Oregon State University and Laura Bogart of the Rand Corporation - found that despite the participants' misgivings, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they were currently using birth control. "Conspiracy beliefs do not appear to be a barrier to using birth control among African-American women," they said. They did note, however, that reluctance to use provider-dependent methods could affect the number of unintended pregnancies among the women.
The researchers believe that the birth control conspiracy beliefs may spring from earlier events. Thorburn suggests that they may be related to "broader medical mistrust" of the government by black men and women, fueled by past events such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments between 1932 and 1972. Medical mistrust might explain why women with strong conspiracy beliefs were less likely to use birth control methods provided by a doctor or other health care worker.
Many of those surveyed also believed that the government uses birth control as a way to control the black population in America. Almost a quarter of those surveyed agreed that "poor and minority women are sometimes forced to be sterilized by the government."
"Conspiracy beliefs do not occur in a vacuum," said Thorburn. "The United States has a long history of efforts to control the fertility of African- American women." The researchers suggest that community-based pregnancy prevention programs that address conspiracy theories directly could be the best way to overcome suspicions.