First Person

Will My Old IUD Become a Relic?

Coming of age in the 1970s, this writer never understood why she kept her old IUD all these years. Now she does: Since the Dobbs decision, many GOP lawmakers have set their sights on birth control.

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It’s a stylized plastic “7” about as long as a toothpick, its stem bound in copper, trailing a thin plastic thread that was pulled from my uterus nearly 40 years ago. Since then, I’ve kept my “Copper 7” IUD in a mother of pearl cigarette case for reasons I could never fully explain—until now.

At 16, I fell in love with a boy I’d met when he asked me to slow dance at a party. I stepped toward him and a door closed behind me and a wave washed over me and we were miraculously drunk on something that wasn’t the stuff we all stole from our parents’ liquor cabinets every weekend. I was lucky—I didn’t get pregnant the first time we had sex, and we agreed that before the next time, we should use birth control. 

Even at 16, I was a late bloomer. It was 1976—we were in the midst of the sexual revolution, and my friends were already sexually active. They directed me to the local Planned Parenthood, where I got my Copper-7. The first IUDs were invented in the early 20th century, coiled in copper filament that killed or immobilized sperm on contact. (Silver coil was even more effective, but it turned users’ gums a terrifying blue-black.) By the ’60s, a flurry of new models emerged carrying the names of the men who conceived them: the Lippes Loop (a cheery squiggle), the Margulies Spiral (shaped like a fiddlehead fern), and the Birnberg Bow, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a tiny plastic coat hanger. The IUD was semi-permanent and reversible, its failure rate was minuscule, and because it freed couples from negotiating protection at the moment of sex, one doctor called it the “unofficial status symbol for the ‘liberated woman.’” Now I was one of them, embarking on my first serious relationship. 

My almighty mother of five was instantly hip to our vibe. “You can feel the electricity between them the minute he walks in the room,” she told my sister, and sat me—her youngest—down for a sex talk.

She didn’t get far before I told her I’d been to Planned Parenthood to get an IUD after vetting the options in Our Bodies Ourselves and discussing it with friends who had them. I could see the wheels of her mind turning: Should she scold me? Tell me I should have talked to her first? Question whether I should be having sex at 16? Was she reflecting on her own five pregnancies and a miscarriage, or the fact that I myself was, as she once told me, “the best mistake” she ever made? 

Finally, she said, “I’m proud of you for taking responsibility. I’m glad you didn’t wait too long to do it.” It was one of her finest parenting moments.

We didn’t know it yet, but my friends and I were coming of age during a historic but fleeting period of sexual liberty, just one legacy of all that second-wave feminists had bequeathed to my generation: Birth control was easily accessible (the mother of a classmate even worked at the center I visited) and Roe v. Wade had been decided three years earlier. We were free in a way that even our older sisters hadn’t been at our age. But within a decade, sex would become anything but carefree. The matter of contraception was preempted by a more urgent question: “Have you been tested?” For HIV. That’s when the boy I met at the party—my first boyfriend—died of AIDS. 

I wore the Copper-7 through college, until I was 22, when I went to a clinic in San Francisco to have it replaced with a newer T-shaped model. But there was a problem: The device had lodged in the uterine wall. The doctor tugged on its string, sending javelins of pain through my cervix. She told me that if she couldn’t remove it, I would need surgery. But out it finally came, and someone must have sensed its significance, because it was folded into a paper towel and handed to me when I left. 

Years later, I pulled it out of its case and examined it, bowed backward like an imperious question mark in its elegant copper collar. It intrigued me mainly because it had lived so long in a part of my body that I’d never seen, orbiting around the tiny galaxy of my uterus doing its talismanic magic. After having a baby, raising a child, and passing through menopause, I saw much more: It was a symbol of both my sexual awakening and my self-determination, this tensile little hieroglyph, light as air and powerful as hell in enforcing my will.  

Now, with Roe repealed and the possibility of a ban on devices like the IUD, which extremists consider an abortifacient because it can not only prevent fertilization but may also inhibit a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall, my Copper-7 is a relic of a period of progress I mistakenly thought would be a perpetual forward march. 

Since 2000, abortion laws have been relaxed in dozens of countries. Reproductive rights have expanded so quickly in Latin America over the past decade that their force has a name, the “Green Wave,” so called for the green bandanas activists wear to protests. But the U.S. has regressed, caving in to minority rule and aligning with fellow backsliders like Poland and Nicaragua. Now 14 states have outlawed—in some instances, even criminalized—abortion; many others are poised to follow. 

Some people are hurriedly getting IUDs so they have long-term protection in the face of the abortion ban cataclysm. Others want them because they’re worried about what kind of short-term contraception will be available with Roe gutted and more restrictions on the horizon. (ProLife Wisconsin offers a glimpse of how far this could go, claiming “[m]ost if not all birth control drugs and devices” cause “a pre-implantation chemical abortion.”) No longer “the status symbol of the liberated woman,” the IUD has become a lifeboat for people panicking  about what’s next. 

I didn’t fight for the right to get an IUD. I was a kid who was lucky enough to come of age at a time when birth control was available to me in the area where I lived; lucky to have friends who could direct me; lucky to have a mother who understood; lucky I didn’t get pregnant the first time. But luck should have nothing to do with any of this. Safety, protection, access, affordability—those are the things that matter. My IUD is only special now because it wasn’t special then. 

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