Out of Control

How a search for answers about reproductive health can lead you down a tunnel of misinformation

December 6, 2022
Darrel Frost

Before the Supreme Court ruled on Dobbs, the major battleground of reproductive-health disinformation was abortion. Now activists—many of them religious, operating as or alongside “wellness” influencers—have turned their focus on birth control. Kiera Butler, who covers this subject for Mother Jones, has placed attention on two strands of misinformation: “One is the idea that birth control in some way is unwholesome and can cause all these health problems. The other is that there are these alternative fertility-awareness-based methods that work just as well—which is not true.”

There are reasons beyond religious beliefs as to why people forgo hormonal birth control; trans men might want to avoid contraceptives that contain estrogen. “There’s a long history of women being told that their medical problems are in their head, especially around the menstrual cycle,” Butler said. “It’s not surprising that they are looking to alternative, nonscientific sources to address their very real problems and concerns.” Yet through social media, podcasts, Google search results, and more, advocates of “natural birth control” purport to fill an information gap left by a medical system unwilling to provide holistic care—using the language of wellness to weaponize against bodily autonomy. 

These sources have impressive reach. â€śIt makes visits take extra long because I have to understand the misinformation and talk to them about why it’s not true,” Aparna Sridhar, an obstetrician and gynecologist who also works as an associate clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told me. “Now that everybody can’t control their ability to be pregnant or not, it’s really important that we pay attention to preventing unplanned pregnancies, because the consequences may be more severe than what we think.” 


Even if wellness influencers come across as secular, Butler has reported, their posts may be amplified—and misrepresented—by religious anti-abortion groups. Lara Briden, a naturopath in New Zealand who calls herself the “Period Revolutionary” on Instagram, promotes articles such as “Is the pill blunting women’s drive to achieve?” Anti-abortionists direct followers to her website. For Mother Jones, Butler asked Briden and other Instagram stars how acquainted they are with accounts that promote them. “I got a bunch of different answers, depending on the influencer,” Butler recalled. Some have done events with Natural Womanhood—a Christian website that promotes the benefits of “nonhormonal” birth control and sponsors anti-abortion events—knowing its religious affiliation but unaware of its anti-abortion stance.

Often, an Instagram post will describe symptoms that someone attributes, based on instinct, to birth control—inadvertent misinformation, easily taken out of context. “I think the problem happens when these influencers are making these claims that aren’t backed up by science and applying them to a general population,” Butler said. “It’s sort of the idea that, you know, your digestion will be disturbed.” Any hormonal birth control has a list of potential side effects. “If someone started it and they feel their body is going through some side effects which are unacceptable for them, then that’s probably not a method for them,” Sridhar said. “But that’s not to say that’s not a method for everyone.”


“People who menstruate have historically turned to friends and family as first-line influences about their health choices—now social media also serves that purpose,” Sarah Sloat, a journalist who has reported on birth-control TikTok for Wired, said. On TikTok, popular videos describe birth control pills pumping people with “unnecessary hormones.” Some posts include paid promotions from fertility-tracking apps, which claim to offer a “natural” form of birth control. (The effectiveness of these apps is highly dependent on how regular your menstruation cycle is and how reliably you can monitor your body.) 

“We’re all kind of swimming in murky waters, where you can see some sincere testimonies with sincere intentions, but also see the language of TikTok”— including an obsession with so-called life hacks, Sloat said. A common claim: “This is what your doctor is not telling you.” The problem is especially pernicious on TikTok because, as Mike Rothschild, a reporter who covers conspiracy theories, said, “the moderation is lighter than a lot of other places.”

Google Searches 

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), nonmedical operations that aim to dissuade people from receiving abortions, appear regularly in Google searches for abortion information. “Online, crisis pregnancy centers are able to look so legit,” Sara Aniano, who works at the Anti-Defamation League and has conducted independent research into this phenomenon, said. Of the more than three hundred sites she reviewed, more than 54 percent were identified on Google as pregnancy care centers; 20 percent were labeled as women’s health clinics. 

CPCs get help from specialized marketing agencies to lure abortion seekers. One firm, Choose Life Marketing, has a program dedicated to “combating” mifepristone and misoprostol, a pair of drugs commonly known as the abortion pill. On its website, Choose Life advises, “Pregnancy centers should have a strong online presence, a relevant website, and a plan to oversaturate Google. This is where women are searching online every day and it’s crucial to meet them there.”


Jolene Brighten—a naturopath based in Florida who sells “hormone-balancing starter kits” and the author of a book called Beyond the Pill—has a YouTube channel and boasts appearances on more than a hundred and twenty-five podcast episodes, including Highest Self by Sahara Rose, which had been downloaded at least thirty million times. Sarah Hill, an evolutionary psychologist and the author of This Is Your Brain on Birth Control, has been featured on numerous health, fitness, and wellness podcasts—from Bulletproof Radio with Dave Asprey to With Whit by Whitney Port. Kelly Brogan, a holistic psychiatrist who describes hormonal birth control as a tool of oppression for women, was endorsed by Natural Womanhood, appeared at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop summit, and has been featured on many podcasts, including Joe Rogan’s, The Holistic OBGYN, and The Ultimate Health.

All of these figures proffer similar stories about birth control: hormonal contraceptives will cause serious health problems, from depression to infertility. For Sridhar, it’s misinformation in need of debunking. “Fertility after the discontinuation of hormonal birth control is pretty immediate, if not within a couple of cycles,” she said. Only in the case of a birth control shot can it sometimes take longer, usually six to nine months. “What actually makes fertility harder is your age. We all, whether we want it or not, have a biological clock.”

Period Cycle Tracking Apps

As cycle-tracking apps have grown in number and popularity, anti-abortion groups have entered the mix. One of the most well-documented is FEMM, an app funded by Sean Fieler, a Catholic anti-abortion activist. A 2018 Guardian investigation found that FEMM, which at the time had been downloaded more than four hundred thousand times, casts doubt on the safety of hormonal birth control while concealing its anti-abortion ties. The site promises “optimal health and wellness in the palm of your hand.”

There’s also 28, a self-described “femtech” company, from Evie, a conservative magazine that publishes birth control misinformation and receives funding from Peter Thiel, also a financial backer of anti-abortion political candidates. The 28 platform and its app—presented as the “#1 Free Cycle-Based Fitness + Wellness Experience”—recommend workouts and personal routines. Scrolling through 28’s homepage, you see a message from Brittany Hugoboom, one of the cofounders. “Hormonal birth control promised freedom,” she writes, “but tricked our bodies into dysfunction and pain.” Another line of copy: “Your period has arrived. As the body sheds the uterine lining, hormone and energy levels are at their lowest. Now is the time for self-care.”

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.