When Eleanor Watkins* was 16, her life was fairly typical: she had her first boyfriend, stressed over GCSES and partied at the weekend. But one missed period and a positive after-school pregnancy test left her sobbing on the floor of her friend Georgia’s house. “I just remember her saying: ‘El, you’re having a baby,’” she told VICE.
Eleanor was terrified. “I was so young, I had a bright future ahead of me. My whole life flashed before my eyes.” Her boyfriend began cheating on her shortly after he found out she was pregnant, but she decided to keep the baby. As her peers began sixth form, she became a single teenage mother.
But this isn’t a typical teenage pregnancy story. Eleanor had taken the birth control pill regularly for two years; she is part of the tiny percentage of women who fall pregnant while on contraception.
But for that one percent, the failure rate is hard to process.
“I saw the result of the test and broke down – I was completely destroyed,” said Sofia Lorenzo*, who had a non-hormonal copper IUD fitted for nearly a year when she fell pregnant. “There was no part of me that was like, yes, this is a possibility – I was just doing it [the test] to ease my mind. All the science says being on the coil is fine and it's 99.999 percent but then it happens to you.”
Sofia, a scientific research assistant from London, chose the IUD as she thought it would be a reliable long term option – once fitted, the IUD can last between five to ten years.
Unlike Eleanor, the 23-year-old decided to have an abortion – a choice that she hoped she would never have to make. “I had always known that if it was me, I would really struggle with a decision,” she says. “I took contraception because I wanted to be safe and I didn’t want to have to experience an abortion in my lifetime.”
For women who have IUDs fitted, the device must be removed before the abortion pill can be taken in order to avoid a potential blood haemorrhage. “When I told the doctor what had happened he said, ‘you’re one in a thousand’ – it was weird to hear him saying it like that.
“One in a thousand sounds like a small number. But when you add up how many sexually active women living in London, it’s not that ridiculously small.”
Narendra Pisal, a consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology, said: “It is important to bear in mind that all contraception has failure rates and none are 100% effective in real-life use.”
With the IUD, pregnancy is “not common” – but no method is foolproof, he said.
Marissa Toste, from Washington DC, endured all the negative side effects of the hormonal patch: hair loss, mood swings, and weight gain – without the promised benefit of birth control. When she experienced strange symptoms after nearly a year of use, a positive pregnancy test confirmed her fears.
She felt confused as she had taken all the precautions she could. “I didn't want to be on birth control – I hated the hormones, but I took it,” she says. “I was irritated that I got pregnant when I wasn't supposed to.”
The daycare worker had her first child at the age of 16 with her high-school boyfriend, despite her mother wanting her to get an abortion. When Marissa got pregnant again with her partner, Matt, at 19, the couple decided to go ahead with the pregnancy.
Sadly, within 12 hours of telling their families, she discovered she had miscarried when she was six weeks pregnant. "I was heartbroken – I felt like that was taken away before I was ready. I guess you're never really ready to go through something like that.”
Choice – or the lack thereof – can have a lasting effect on women’s psyche and their approach to sex. “I was very angry for a long time,” says Eleanor, now 27, and working as a support worker in Northants. “I wish I had been older and I wish I could have had a choice – I felt like I had been cheated in a way.”
A decade on, her life has turned out well, but at the time it was very difficult. "I was judged a lot – [people at school] just didn’t believe that I was on the Pill, they thought I had planned it.”
She added: “I’m not in any way resentful or angry towards my son, because obviously he didn't ask to be born, but I just couldn’t understand why it was happening to me as I had been cautious.”
Eleanor now uses both condoms and the IUD to minimise any chance of unexpected pregnancy: “I would rather be extra safe.”
Having lost faith in contraception after her abortion, Sofia says she is still anxious about being pregnant after sex, despite now being on the pill. “I got really scared and took the morning-after pill the other day because I just thought now I have to be ‘extra safe’.”
Mostly, she is angry that her birth control failed her. “I did everything in my power to stop getting pregnant – there should be better stuff out there.”
While she understands there is a failure rate with contraception, the 23-year-old still feels at times as if it is her body that has failed. “When I’m alone with my thoughts, I think that I’ve done something wrong when I really haven't,” she says. “Working in science, I know it's nothing to do with me as an individual – it’s the drugs that have failed me – I haven't failed to respond to the drugs."
After the birth of her third child, Marissa’s partner Matt chose to have a vasectomy at the age of 26 to prevent any further chance of pregnancy.
Even then, Marissa remains sceptical about its effectiveness. “It is always going to be on the back of my mind that it is a possibility and it is scary – especially once you're done having kids and the idea of accidentally having another one is pretty terrifying.”
The surgical procedure also known as male sterilisation, is considered permanent, sealing a man’s tubes to prevent the spread of sperm. It is the only form of male contraceptive available. Like its female counterparts, it too has a 1 percent failure rate.
But, as Sofia says, categorising people into statistics is reductive and can make people forget just how intensely personal an experience it is. “To everyone else you're just a number – but that ‘one’ is still an individual who is going to think about it.”
She pauses. “I will think about it, most likely, forever.”
* Name has been changed
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.