By Becky Ham, Science Writer
Health Behavior News Service
In a recent survey of 500 black Americans, only half believed that the government tells the truth about the safety and side effects of new birth control methods.
Birth control conspiracy theories still affect the use of birth control by black men and women, according to a study reported in the latest issue of the journal Health Education and Behavior.
One-third of participants of the telephone survey said that medical institutions use poor and minority people as “guinea pigs” to try out new birth control methods, according to study authors Sheryl Thorburn of Oregon State University and Laura Bogart of the Rand Corporation.
In particular, 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 and devices like Norplant.
However, of those surveyed who were asked about birth control — those who had reported ever having a sexual partner of the opposite sex — 78 percent said they were currently using some form of birth control.
The authors found it “encouraging that conspiracy beliefs do not appear to be a barrier to using birth control among African-American women,” but note that the reluctance to use provider-dependent methods could affect the number of unintended pregnancies among the women.
Substantial numbers 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,” while 22 percent agreed that “the government’s family planning policies are intended to control the number of Black people.”
However, conspiracy beliefs about population control did not affect birth control use by either men or women in the survey, the researchers found.
The study included black adults ages 15 to 44 across the United States. The majority of participants had an annual household income of $25,000 or greater, one-fifth were currently married, about half had some college education and more than one-third described themselves as “very or extremely” religious.
The survey is part of a larger study by the researchers examining conspiracy beliefs about HIV/AIDS in the black community.
Thorburn suggests that conspiracy theories about birth control may stem from “broader medical mistrust” of the government by black men and women, fueled by past history 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, Thorburn says.
“I think the mistrust is deep-rooted and broad. That is, it is not limited to birth control. African-American mistrust of health care seems to cut across all aspects of health care,” says Thomas LaVeist, PhD, director of the Center for Health Disparities Solutions at Johns Hopkins Bloomburg School of Public Health.
“Conspiracy beliefs do not occur in a vacuum,” Thorburn says. “The United States has a long history of efforts to control the fertility of African-American women.” She says that such efforts range from slavery to coercive sterilization programs as recent as the 1970s.
Thorburn and colleagues suggest that community-based pregnancy prevention programs that address conspiracy theories directly could be the best way to overcome suspicion of the government and medical establishment.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.