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Birth Control Options for Women

  • Female Sterilization

    Female surgical sterilization (also called tubal sterilization, tubal ligation, and tubal occlusion) is a low-risk, highly effective one-time procedure that offers lifelong protection against pregnancy. Female sterilization is the second most widely-used form of contraception in the United States (oral contraceptives are the first).

    Basics of Female Sterilization

    Female surgical sterilization procedures block the fallopian tubes and thereby prevent sperm from reaching and fertilizing the eggs. The ovaries continue to function normally, but the eggs they release break up and are harmlessly absorbed by the body. Tubal sterilization is performed in a hospital or outpatient clinic under local or general anesthesia.

    The uterus is a hollow muscular organ located in the female pelvis behind the bladder and in front of the rectum. The ovaries produce the eggs that travel through the fallopian tubes. Once the egg has left the ovary it can be fertilized and implant itself in the lining of the uterus. The main function of the uterus is to nourish the developing fetus prior to birth.

    Sterilization does not cause menopause. Menstruation continues as before, with usually very little difference in length, regularity, flow, or cramping. Sterilization does not offer protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

    Click the icon to see an image of tubal ligation.

    Specific Tubal Sterilization Techniques

    Laparoscopy. Laparoscopy is the most common surgical approach for tubal sterilization:

    • The procedure begins with a tiny incision in the abdomen in or near the navel. The surgeon inserts a narrow viewing scope called a laparoscope through the incision.
    • A second small incision is made just above the pubic hairline, and a probe is inserted.
    • Once the tubes are found, the surgeon closes them using different methods: clips, tubal rings, or electrocoagulation (using an electric current to cauterize and destroy a portion of the tube).
    • Laparoscopy usually takes 20 - 30 minutes and causes minimal scarring. The patient is often able to go home the same day and can resume intercourse as soon as she feels ready.
    Click the icon to see an illustrated series detailing tubal ligation.

    Minilaparotomy. Minilaparotomy does not use a viewing instrument and requires an abdominal incision, but it is small -- about 2 inches long. The tubes are tied and cut. Generally speaking, minilaparotomy is preferred for women who choose to be sterilized right after childbirth, while laparoscopy is preferred at other times. Minilaparotomy usually takes about 30 minutes to perform. Women who undergo minilaparotomy typically need a few days to recover and can resume intercourse after consulting their doctor.

    Essure. The Essure method uses a small spiral-like device to block the fallopian tube. Unlike tubal ligation, the Essure procedure does not require incisions or general anesthesia. It can be performed in a doctor’s office and takes about 45 minutes. A specially trained doctor uses a viewing instrument called a hysteroscope to insert the device through the vagina and into the uterus, and then up into the fallopian tube. Once the device is in place, it expands inside the fallopian tubes. During the next 3 months, scar tissue forms around the device and blocks the tubes. This results in permanent sterilization.

    Candidacy for Female Sterilization

    Before undergoing sterilization, a woman must be sure that she no longer wants to bear children and will not want to bear children in the future, even if the circumstances of her life change drastically. She must also be aware of the many effective contraceptive choices available. Possible reasons for choosing female sterilization procedures over reversible forms of contraception include:

    • Not wanting children and being unable to use other methods of contraception
    • Health problems that make pregnancy unsafe
    • Genetic disorders

    If married, both partners should completely agree that they no longer want to have children and should also have ruled out vasectomy for the man. Vasectomy is a simple procedure that has a lower failure rate than female surgical sterilization, carries fewer risks, and is less expensive. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #37: Vasectomy.]

    Even if all these factors are present, a woman must consider her options carefully before proceeding. Women at highest risk for regretting sterilization include:

    • Women who are younger at the time of sterilization
    • Women who had the procedure immediately after a vaginal delivery
    • Women who had the procedure within 7 years of having their youngest child
    • Women in lower income groups

    If a woman changes her mind and wants to become pregnant, a reversal procedure is available, but it is very difficult to perform and requires an experienced surgeon. Subsequent pregnancy rates after reversal depend on the surgeon’s skill, the age of the woman, and, to a lesser degree, her weight and the length of time between the tubal ligation and the reversal procedure. Not all insurance carriers cover the cost of reversal.

    Advantages of Female Sterilization

    Women who choose sterilization no longer need to worry about pregnancy or cope with the distractions and possible side effects of contraceptives. Sterilization does not impair sexual desire or pleasure, and many people say that it actually enhances sex by removing the fear of unwanted pregnancy.

    Disadvantages and Complications of Female Sterilization

    • Failure is rare, less than 1%, but can occur. More than half of these pregnancies are ectopic, which require surgical treatment.
    • After any of the procedures, a woman may feel tired, dizzy, nauseous, bloated, or gassy, and may have minor abdominal and shoulder pain. Usually these symptoms go away in 1 - 3 days.
    • Serious complications from female surgical sterilization are uncommon and are most likely to occur with abdominal procedures. These rare complications include bleeding, infection, or reaction to the anesthetic.