Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall

On February 10th, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Rachel Maddow. In this she outlines how there are Republicans who don’t want birth control covered by insurance, they don’t want Planned Parenthood receiving federal funding, and they want an embryo to be considered as a person with rights. She highlights that this last issue threatens the legality of hormonal birth control. In the final paragraph she states:

“Time will tell on the political impact of this fight, but the relevant political context here is more than just a 2012 measure of Catholic bishops’ influence on moral issues. It’s also this year’s mainstream Republican embrace of an antiabortion movement that no longer just marches on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to criminalize abortion; it now marches on the anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, holding signs that say “The Pill Kills.”

Discarded Pill Package Photo by Beatrice Murch // CC-BY-SA 2.0

I was somewhat perturbed by Rachel’s slightly misleading description of how hormonal birth control works which suggested she has no more of an understanding than the Republicans she is railing against. However, I like her and I am loathe to criticize her — but I must. The thing is — the pill does kill. I’m not talking unborn children, I’m talking teen and adult women who are definitely considered persons.

As I wrote about for Ms. magazine last week, the FDA recently ruled to keep the oral contraceptives Yaz and Yasmin on the market despite the fact that it was discovered these drugs hold a 50% to 75% increased risk of causing blood clots than other birth control pills. Even though they are only as effective as other pills in preventing pregnancy, an FDA advisory board weighted with people with financial ties to Bayer Pharmaceuticals decided the benefits outweighed the risks. There are 10,000 lawsuits against Bayer — women who have been seriously injured by the embolism, stroke, or heart attack that resulted from a blood clot and the families of women who have died. I spoke to a lawyer working on many of these cases who told me one of his clients is a 20-year-old young woman who was training to be an Olympic skier when she started taking Yaz. She developed a blood clot, had a stroke, and is now permanently injured.

Now, I’m British and so where I’m from birth control is free under the National Health System. If you want to use the pill for contraception the doctor draws a little ‘female’ sign on your prescription and the pill is given to you, any brand and as often as you need it, for free. If you want it for, say, acne or endometriosis treatment, you pay the same prescription rate as you would any other drug — around $12. The NHS has even piloted schemes to make the Pill available over-the-counter. So, I’m coming from a very different background and therefore when I started criticizing Yasmin — and then the pill as a whole — through my blog, Sweetening the Pill, I was perplexed to find I was accused of siding with the far and religious Right. I’m pro-choice. I used the pill for a decade. Now I use a combination of condoms and spermicide together and the fertility awareness method. I don’t want children. I have no problem with abortion. I’m not Christian. Somewhere around half of the British population do not see themselves as part of an organized religion, significantly more than in the US.

From this standpoint, to me it seems as though the fight over sustaining access to birth control is preventing women speaking honestly about the pill, and hormonal contraceptives in general. In the US women seem too scared to criticize the pill as they think anything less than zealous enthusiasm will be seized upon by the Right and used as fodder in their bid to ban birth control. This situation means there is very little accurate information getting through to women about the risks of hormonal contraceptives — from the quality-of-life-threatening to the truly life-threatening. Those on the Right that are looking to ban birth control or limit access (like Mr. Rick Santorum) are manipulating information, this is true, but so are those who claim to be working for women, who claim to have women’s best interests at heart – feminists, activists for reproductive rights and the women’s health movement. The silencing of honest discussion is letting many women suffer unnecessarily as a result of using the Pill.

How many women out there have not heard about the new Yaz/Yasmin research? How many have, despite the leg pain and swelling they’ve been experiencing, decided to keep taking Yaz? They keep taking it because they are told by the likes of Jezebel that pregnancy holds a much higher risk so it’s better to be on it than not. We can’t blame this on women not reading the insert. Not when there is so much propaganda for the pill, enough to drown out the wordy, deliberately evasive and cautious details on that slip of paper. But since the Nelson Pill Hearings we’ve been acting like the insert marks the end of the discussion.

These women don’t know they have other non-hormonal options or how to use them properly because we are too busy talking up the pill, raising its pedestal higher in the hope that we can stop it being taken away entirely. ‘Positive’ research is seized upon – such as that claiming the Pill prevents period pain – even though the majority perpetuates false information about how the pill works. Statistics are circulated on Facebook that proudly state that 31% of women use the Pill to prevent menstrual pain, 28% to regulate their periods, 14% to treat acne, 11% other and 4% for endometriosis. Consider this with the FDA ruling on Yaz/Yasmin: Do the benefits of the drugs’ use for regulating periods outweigh the risks? The majority of women taking the pill — taking Yaz/Yasmin specifically, if you like — are not sick. The pill is not keeping them alive. It isn’t, for most, easing pain that could not be eased via other less intrusive methods that don’t involve taking a drug every day, for years. There are non-hormonal methods of birth control that are just as, if not more, effective. They have no side effects. This is the point from which we need to start a discussion about the pill.

What the Yaz debacle should tell us is that we are being lied to and in response we should increase our vigilance when it comes to hormonal birth control. I think it is safe to assume if Bayer could hide research and weight an advisory panel, pay magazines to subtly promote Yaz in features, plant false news stories on local TV news and pay ‘experts’ in women’s health to advocate for their drugs in books and lectures, then there’s a distinct possibility that the lies don’t stop there, with just these brands of pills from this one company. It is too important to continue to be naïve about this. I think trying to silence critical thinking and honest discussion is abusive of the trust women are putting in certain groups of people to advocate for them. At this time it seems like these groups are trying to keep women on the pill at any cost, whilst the Right is trying to get women off the pill at any cost. The pharmaceutical industry must be loving all the free advertising they’re receiving from feminists. Why do we believe pharmaceutical companies are working for our good?

From my standpoint the whole debate is based on faulty foundations — that the richest country in the world expects a sick person to pay for medical care is, to me, barbaric. But, moving on — what would the best course of action be for women faced with expensive birth control pills costing them around $60 a month or, let’s say, for women faced with a ban on birth control? I think we need to support education on non-hormonal alternatives and encourage the development of body literacy.

Using a non-hormonal alternative method — such as condoms and spermicide combined — and establishing an understanding and awareness of your own ovulatory cycle would be a great position to take at this time. There’s also the diaphragm, the non-hormonal IUD and the Today sponge to consider.

Yes, I know, the Catholics are all for a similar method that they call ‘natural family planning.’ Except NFP is considered by Catholics to be “a way of following God’s plan for achieving and/or avoiding pregnancy” and the fertility awareness method has nothing to do with God. NFP advocates promote “ecological breastfeeding – a form of child care that normally spaces babies about two years apart.” Basically, NFP is very much a pro-baby making method. The Catholic Church doesn’t agree with any other forms of contraception, including barrier methods.

With the fertility awareness method, some women I know use condoms (or another barrier) and spermicide when they’re ovulating and nothing when they’re not; and some women have no penetrative sex during the time they are ovulating and use condoms and spermicide the rest of the month. Body literacy is a good addition to any form of contraception – it will increase its effectiveness. This is the flip side of criticizing the pill, as many women who educate themselves about how their bodies work no longer want to use hormonal contraceptives. They feel that they can not experience optimum health when they are suppressing ovulation for years at a time. Some of them, like me, find that this choice is life-changing – and not because they get accidentally pregnant. This step puts the action back into the term ‘activist.’

Occupy yourself. Every new cycle spurs action. A revolution – in every sense of the word.

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