Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

So the pill won’t kill me; what’s the point?

March 18th, 2010 by Laura Wershler

Women on the pill live longer. So touts a March 12, 2010 Reuters news story out of London, England reporting on a study published March 11 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). A misleading headline if ever there was one.

The study followed 46, 000 women for up to 40 years, to see if the mortality risk among women sho have used oral contraceptives differs from that of never users. What the study actually found, according to the public release issued by BMJ on March 12 is this: “Women in the UK who have ever used oral contraceptives are less likely to die from any cause, including all cancers and heart disease, compared with never users.”

The study also found a slightly higher risk (of death, I presume) in women under 45 years old who are current or recent users of the pill.  As such, the authors assert:

Many women, especially those who used the first generation of oral contaceptives many years ago, are likely to be reassured by our results.  However, our findings might not reflect the experience of women using oral contraceptives today, if currently available preparations have a different risk than earlier products.

I’m 56 years old. I didn’t take the pill in the UK. But I did take it in Canada in the early to late seventies, back when it was much stronger than it is today. And back when it was NOT common for women to start the pill at 15 and take it for a decade or longer.  Am I reassured by these findings? Sort of. Although years of hard-fought-for healthy, ovulatory menstruation, subsequent to my year long post-pill amenorrhea, are more likely responsible for my good health than having  been an “ever user” of oral contraceptives. And more likely to protect me from heart disease and cancer than whatever benefits I may have derived from my on again, off again pill-taking history.

As for women under 45, it’s not just the “currently available preparations” I’d be concerned about. And there are tons of them: multiple variations of standard pills, continuous use pills like Seasonale and Lybrel, and cycle-stopping contraceptives like Depo-Provera and the Mirena IUD. The other concern is that the contraceptive use of young women today is much different than it was in my youth. They start using oral and other hormonal contraception at younger ages, before their reproductive systems have fully matured and their fertility (regular, ovulatory menstrual cycles) is well established. And they tend to take it for longer. The verdict on the long-term effects of this kind of contraceptive use is yet to be determined.

I’m not going to debate the merits or faults of this study or the unanswered questions it raises. The question I really want to ask is “What’s the point?”

The cynic in me believes that this study, and misleading headlines like Women on the pill live longer, will be used to compel women of all ages to ‘shut up already’ about their growing concerns with hormonal contraception. It will be dragged out as “scientific evidence” that taking the pill saves lives, as is implied in this article published by the Daily Mail:

The contraceptive Pill can extend your life and may even save 1,500 lives a year, a study has suggested.

Women who have taken the Pill at any stage in their life are less likely to die from any cause – including heart disease and all types of cancer – than those who have never taken the oral contraceptive.

But wait, here’s the next paragraph:

However, the positive effects may only be enjoyed by women who have taken older-style pills rather than those on newer drugs.

Let’s get real. For women my age this study may offer some small comfort. But for young women, it is perfectly useless. Many of them are re-thinking hormonal birth control and seeking out alternatives. They are paying attention to news stories and research about the disconcerting negative health outcomes experienced by women taking hormonal contraception. Research from many quarters suggests that taking the pill (et al) can cause inflammatory bowel disease and hardening of the arteries, raise the risk of heart attack, diminsh bone density, and impair women’s sex drive.  Many women are fed-up with mood disorders, weight gain, and the general malaise that accompanies their pill use. Others are “ditching the pill for good” and writing about their experiences on blogs and magazine websites.

Women said “No” to the pill in my day, and young women are saying “No” to the pill (and other forms of hormonal contraception) today, not because we thought, or they think, it would, or will kill us. (Though death and disability from pill-related stroke and heart attack, both then and now, are documented.)

Today, women are saying “No” to the pill because they want to say “Yes” to better health and well-being. Research demonstrating the health benefits of consistent ovulatory menstrual cycles – such as healthy hearts and breasts, strong bones and muscles, and vibrant libidos –  supports the validity of this choice.

We don’t all buy the idea that our own hormones are bad for us and therefore, surely, fake hormones must be better.

2 responses to “So the pill won’t kill me; what’s the point?”

  1. Jane says:

    Both myself and my boyfriend were very concerned about this when it showed up in the Metro paper the other week. We’re both of the school of thought that the pill is used too often as a quick-fix by doctors when it comes to menstrual health problems, particularly with pre-teens and teens, so this sort of headline to us seems terribly damaging.

    As a survivor of stoke – caused by the pill, and by doctors not realising it was the pill/refusing to help me use anything else – I wonder whether they took cases like mine into account, how they can claim this with so many new pills on the market, with so many teens on the pill, with most women not constantly using the pill (or the same type or brand) etc. How does one quantify this anyway? What other factors are involved? What does this now mean for the relationships between women and doctors? We already have doctors taught to prescribe the pill for any and all women’s health problems, I still get pressured into using the pill despite my history, been refused treatment and verbally abused for not being on the pill, so am I now going to be told it’ll help me live longer if I stopped being so silly and went back on the pill?

    There are just so many things wrong with this story/research I thought it was unreal that this story made front-page news.

  2. Laura Wershler says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jane. Stories like yours are more common than one might think. It’s important that women know that these things can happen on the pill. I’ve heard stories of young women being put on the pill despite having high blood pressure – a clear contraindication to oral contraception. As far doctors who actually understand and appreciate that some women not only want, but need, alternative methods? They seem to be few and far between. But women deserve access to information and services to help them use non-hormonal methods effectively and confidently.

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