The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Have an IUD? Thank Warren Buffett

That ground-breaking program in Colorado? Warren Buffett's family paid for that. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Bloomberg Businessweek just ran a fascinating piece about how Warren Buffett’s family quietly donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the research and expansion of long-term, reversible birth control.

The one-sentence summary: A stream of money from the Wizard of Omaha apparently helped spark a significant increase in the number of American women using intrauterine devices, or IUDs.

Buffett, a businessman to his core, was just thinking economically, according to a 2008 interview with Judith DeSarno, the Buffett Foundation’s former director for domestic programs: “He thinks that unless women can control their fertility — and that it’s basically their right to control their fertility — that you are sort of wasting more than half of the brainpower in the United States.”

Ten years ago, barely anyone used an IUD, which gynecologists say is the most effective form of birth control with a failure rate of less than 1 percent.

That’s largely because the first version, developed in the '70s, caused infertility and, in extreme cases, death. The calamity spurred the Food and Drug Administration to start regulating medical devices. Despite government oversight, medical research in IUDs practically halted — until, it seems, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation stepped in.

Reporter Karen Weise dug up records showing the charity, attempting to remain anonymous, gave $20 million to a ground-breaking study of nearly 10,000 women in St. Louis, which found that when providers offered them all forms of contraception for free, two-thirds opted for IUDs and hormonal implants.

The charity also funded a $23 million-program in Colorado that offered more than 30,000 IUDs to women who lacked health insurance. It ultimately gave at least $200 million over recent years to the research and promotion of IUDs, which has evidently boosted the public's trust in the method.

Advocates say the Colorado program led to a sharp drop in teen pregnancies. Between 2007 and 2012, birth rates among high school-age girls in the state dropped 39 percent, compared to 29 percent nationwide, according to the CDC. A state analysis found the initiative was responsible for three-quarters of the decline.

Last year, the Post’s Tina Griego asked Colorado officials why the IUD program worked so well.

“If you have a drug that is 20 times more effective than other drugs, you will always start with that as your first option,” Greta Klingler, family planning supervisor for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told her. “What we did (in the Colorado Family Planning Initiative) is kind of flip the mindset, so rather than introducing all contraception as being on the same playing field, we said, ‘Let’s start with what is most effective.'”

Nowadays, the popularity of long-term, reversible birth control continues to swell. From 2006 to 2013, the rate of American women choosing the IUD — a small, T-shaped devices placed in the uterus — and hormonal implants nearly doubled, CDC data shows, spiking from 3.8 percent to 7.2 percent.

Far more women still opt for the pill, the most popular form of prescription birth control in the United States. When used properly, it's as effective as the IUD. The necessity of remembering to take it at about the same time every day, however, leaves more room for human error.