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Meet the ‘IUD Whisperer’ Doctor Who Proved Abortion Pills Are Safe

Dr. Ellen Wiebe is globally renowned for killing off sexual health myths with science. We must protect her at all costs.

by Emily McCarty
May 26 2017, 2:21pm

Dr. Ellen Wiebe in Vancouver, December 2015. (Darryl Dyck, CP)

Dr. Ellen Wiebe isn't sure how she earned the name "IUD whisperer" and she doesn't know who started it, either. It probably has something to do with the fact she inserts thousands of IUDs every year, but it would be foolish to leave it at that.

Dr. Wiebe has an incredible knack for killing off harmful sexual health myths with science. When patients expressed concern about using tampons and menstrual cups with IUDs, she went out and proved it was safe. She knew no one wanted to use pads. And when IUD users complained about their sex partners feeling the strings, she led research to find out how prevalent this was and how to get around it.

She also founded an indispensable women's clinic in Vancouver, is a provider of assisted dying, and a clinical professor at UBC. It was Dr. Wiebe who led the clinical trials for Mifegymiso, Canada's brand of abortion pill RU-486. It was approved in 2015 thanks to her work.

To recap, she's published almost 40 studies around abortion, sexual assault, and contraception, and we must protect her at all costs.

VICE: Tell me about yourself, Dr. Wiebe.
Dr. Ellen Wiebe: I'm a clinical professor at UBC. My background is in family medicine, not gynecology. I'm the medical director at Willow Women's Clinic. I started the clinic.

Are you aware of being called the 'IUD Whisperer?'
(Laughs) Yes.

What do you think of it?
Well—I started putting in IUDs over 40 years ago. I have put a lot in. In the last year, since we've ran an IUD clinic at Willow Women's Clinic, I've put in thousands a year. Yes, one gets a little bit of experience.

What would you say your role has been in popularizing the IUD?
I've done lots of research trying to find better IUDs, exploring the experience of young nulliparous women (women who haven't had children) because that was something that was relatively new over the last 10 years... I have made sure that my clinic can get people in quickly. Made sure that people—clinics and doctors in the community—know that we're available and can get IUDs in quickly. I've taught, and am still teaching, many other providers how to insert IUDs.

What are some common misconceptions around IUDs?
That it will cause permanent damage, it will interfere with their fertility. That's probably the most common reason people talk about being afraid of it. It's a myth.

You've done some pioneering research on IUDs and abortion. Why aren't more being done?
Plenty of studies are being done, the problem is most of them are being done by pharmaceutical companies who have a vested interest. The knowledge is slanted and that is one of the big problems.

What prompted you to complete your study on abortions and IUDs?
There were some people saying that you had to wait after an abortion to get an IUD, and when people wait, they are less likely to do it. They are highly motivated at the time of the abortion to get birth control. Then life happens, and the motivation drops off. So we wanted to know that people who got their IUD shortly after the abortion, it was safe to do that.

What about your study on tampons and IUDs? Can you tell me about that?
One of the handouts that came out with the IUD said that people weren't supposed to use tampons. We knew that quite a few of women were using menstrual cups as well and would often ask us if if it was okay. We knew tampons were okay because it has been 40 some years people have been using them. But there wasn't any studies to prove it, no evidence that we could cite to say it was safe. People were being told by various people and the pamphlets that came with the IUDs that said you couldn't use it. And that was interfering with people's willingness to have one.

Why is the IUD an important option, especially for those who might have only used the pill?
First of all, the pill does not work nearly as well. The failure rate runs about 8 percent per year and the IUD is less than 1 percent. Having it work well and meaning that you're not facing an unplanned pregnancy is much better. And the other is it's so convenient—you don't have to do something every time you have sex, like condoms, and you don't have to remember to take a pill everyday at exactly the same time every day. Which is for me impossible and for a lot of women, very difficult. It is the one you can forget about. You can just have your IUD put in and then when you are ready to have kids, take it out. I mean it is so easy.

Any other reproductive misconceptions out there that you might tackle next?
The most common misconception that I am dealing with, almost every day, is abortion is more dangerous. When birth is 10 ten times more dangerous than abortion, ten times more deaths, more infections, and more ICU admissions. It's so fascinating to me that both women who are educated, those who are not, both women who are pro-choice and ones who are anti-choice are under the impression that abortions are either more dangerous or similarly dangerous than birth. When really they are 10 times safer than birth. It's amazing to deal with this constantly and work against the misconception. it's just something that i have to deal with all the time.

Any updates on accessibility for RU 486, the abortion pill?
We were waiting and waiting and waiting for it and the day that I knew we could order it, I ordered 100 and the day they arrived, I started offering it to women and got it on the website and made sure people would know that we had it.

It can be quite costly. Are they looking to reduce costs in BC for the pill?
So, first we had to wait for CADTH (Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health), which reviews each drug and that's what governments and insurance accept as evidence it's worth funding. The application went in late and it was finally accepted by them. The government couldn't, wouldn't, consider funding something that wasn't funded by CADTH. So that is done and we were in the middle of the BC election so we weren't expecting anything out of our government—and we didn't get anything. So now they're still too busy trying to figure out that—we've been delayed again I'm sure—but things that are far more important to the three parties are going to happen before we get that one done.

Is there anything important you'd like to add?
So, so many people when they talk about birth control or sexual health, don't talk about that idea that we are involved in sexual pleasure. So when you want good birth control, it's so that you can have good sex. It is really important to not compromise on that, but you should find the birth control that actually makes your sex life good. So IUDs are very good for that. For some women, birth control pills are great because they make their periods regular and lighter and they can skip periods and that can be good for your sex life. But sometimes the hormones interfere with libido, with lubrication, and those things are devastating to your sex life, especially if it also comes with some moodiness. Really bad for your sex life (laughs). So I think it's important that when we talk about birth control, we need to talk about sexual pleasure.

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