Beyond the pill: Hormone-free contraceptive options often an afterthought

By Olivia Cohen, News Editor

Lucas Martinez

Throughout high school, Libby Thomas’ days consisted of the same routine. Waking up, getting to school and settling into her first class of the day. The only problem was she was miserable.

Thomas, a sophomore cinema and television arts major, initially got on the hormonal birth control pill during her junior year of high school to help with her chronic acne.

Instead, she dealt with depressive dips in her mood, lacked motivation in school and experienced general sadness. She didn’t know what to do. After trying five different brands of the pill, Thomas called it quits.

Since quitting, Thomas received the non-hormonal, copper IUD implant in January 2021 and hasn’t looked back. She’s happier, she has her drive back and she feels relieved.

“There wasn’t really much of a decision that I had to make because I did not want to go on any hormones at all … even if it was the slightest hormones,” Thomas said. “Anything with hormones scared me.”

Hormonal and non-hormonal contraceptives differ as non-hormonal options contain no hormones and therefore will not interfere with one’s cycle whatsoever. These methods can include copper IUDs, diaphragms and spermicides.

On the other hand, hormonal contraceptives consist of the oral pill, the patch, the vaginal ring, the Progestin IUD, the Depo-Vera shot and more. Hormonal options of birth control can affect the user in a variety of ways, which could include changes in their mental health, weight fluctuations and changes in their menstrual cycles.

For Kaya Lane, a senior journalism major, she finds herself reeling when it comes to taking her hormonal pills. Lane also got on the pill in high school, but she used it to ease her periods.

“I was having horrible period pains, it got to the point where I was cramping really badly and I would vomit … I pretty much couldn’t do anything because my period was interfering with everything,” Lane said. “Without birth control, my periods were almost brutal to deal with.”

Lane, who was initially prescribed a hormonal treatment by a hospital, said what prohibits her from getting on a new method of birth control is the potential cost of other contraceptives.

“I’ve always considered doing other contraceptives, but I think they’re a bit pricier,” Lane said. “I think the pill is one of the cheaper alternatives, so for me, that was kind of the reason I stuck with it.”

Columbia’s Health Center offers a wide range of healthcare for its students, however, the clinic offers the oral pill and the Depo-Provera shot – excluding students looking for a non-hormonal and long-term option. The center also offer female condoms.

In a Feb. 3 email to the Chronicle, Beverly Anderson, associate dean of Student Health and Support, said the school’s clinic chose to offer the oral pill and the Depo-Provera shot in an effort to not duplicate the birth control services students could find elsewhere in Chicago for free.

Anderson said if the school offers contraceptives, such as the IUD, it would require an obstetrician or gynecologist to perform the procedure, which would increase the health center fee that all Columbia students pay to bring the doctor on to the staff.

The University of Illinois Chicago’s CampusCare, the school’s on-site clinic, offers both hormonal and non-hormonal contraceptive options. Similar to Columbia, UIC students pay a mandatory fee that goes to the school’s Student Health Service.

Yvonne Oldaker, the associate medical director at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said there are a variety of reasons why an individual may choose a specific contraceptive method, such as medical history, personal experiences and what an individual has heard about a method that could sway one’s decision.

“The philosophical base here is that for people to have access to the birth control of their choice,” Oldaker said. “Out there in the world, cost is a big issue for people, some methods are more expensive than others.”

Oldaker added that implant birth control options – including the arm implant, and both hormonal and non-hormonal IUDs – are less available across the board, posing accessibility issues to those trying to access them.

Chloe Skerlak is a licensed holistic reproductive health practitioner and certified fertility awareness educator, who runs a company that teaches clients how to approach all aspects of menstruation and fertility in a holistic, non-invasive way.

“I was looking for hormone-free birth control and that’s when I discovered the fertility awareness method,” Skerlak said. “It was super easy, super empowering for me that after I learned and used it as contraception for two years I got really excited about helping others do the same.”

Skerlak, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from the University of Alberta, Canada, said she educates her students to look for their fertile window based on a three-step daily routine that focuses on what is actually happening to one’s body and how it feels.

For example, Skerlak teaches her students to first examine their vaginal mucus every morning to tell when they enter and exit their fertile window. Secondly, Skerlak teaches menstruators to take their basal body temperature either orally or by putting an average thermometer under their armpit. Skerlak said that the basal body temperature method works by an individual taking and recording their temperature every morning. After one cycle, they would be able to confirm they have exited their fertile window and are now post-ovulatory, as one’s temperature would increase during ovulation.

Lastly, Skerlak said the cervix itself changes shape and size based on what cycle stage someone is in. The last step to her practice is for menstruators to physically feel their own cervix to identify where they are in their cycle.

“The cervix changes throughout the menstrual cycle as well, so paying attention to the subtle changes to your cervix can help confirm where you are in your cycle,” Skerlak said.

Skerlak said this three-step method could be helpful, especially for a college student because the number one cause for delayed ovulation is stress.

“A pet peeve of mine is when people say, ‘my period is late.’ Your period is never late, it comes on time, every time, What is late is ovulation. … If you can identify when you ovulate, you’ll be able to predict when you get your period,” Skerlak said. “The number one thing that delays ovulation is stress, whether it’s emotional stress, physical stress, chemical stress … and I would say that when you are in school, that’s a really stressful time.”

Skerlak added that although the copper IUD is hormone-free, it does not come without its own set of drawbacks.

“The copper IUD is non-hormonal, which is great and won’t affect your ovulation, but is not without its consequences,” Skerlak said. “The copper IUD, its main intention is to create a hostile environment in your uterus through inflammation. … It acts as a toxin to sperm, so it’s going to act like a toxin to your body as well.”

Oldaker said one of the biggest determinants for an individual to choose a certain birth control method is how it will fit into their life, as some individuals might adapt to taking a pill at the same time every day or waking up and taking their basal body temperature in the morning, but some might want a longer-term solution.

Oldaker said if an individual is looking for a specific form of birth control or weighing their different options, there is a Planned Parenthood right in the South Loop.

The South Loop’s Planned Parenthood location is currently in the process of moving to a bigger building with a higher client capacity. Doors at the new location will open this upcoming Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at 16 N. Wabash Ave.

“Planned Parenthood has a clinic in the Loop, right down the street from Columbia. … We stock multiple brands of birth control pills … we have all of the IUDs available, including the non-hormonal one, we’ve got the implant, Depo, the pill, the patch, the ring,” Oldaker said. “If they make it, we’ve got it or we will prescribe it for you.”