Birth Control Ain’t Right (But Neither Should It Be Left)

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I’m writing this article with all the trepidation of someone walking into a Thai restaurant with a peanut allergy — knowing it could go horribly wrong.

I want to discuss politics. More precisely, I want to talk about a political fight by apolitical means. When it really comes down to it, hormonal birth control and women’s health transcend politics – or at least they should. It’s easy to lose sight of that in today’s political climate.

Lupus and Birth Control

An item came across my news feed this morning that caught my eye. It wasn’t a news story, but a letter to the editor of a coastal newspaper. The writer mentioned the increasing incidence of lupus in young women caused by hormonal contraceptives (the keywords that landed it in my newsfeed). Wow! That’s a connection very few people have made. I wanted to read more.

But when I opened the letter, it was a political diatribe from a woman who was all over the map. She talked about Republicans using the Honduran caravan to get votes. She blamed the caravan on overpopulation caused by poverty stemming from a Latino machismo perpetuated by the Catholic Church. She accused conservatives of trying to outlaw birth control. I was with her when it came to the facts (or fact), but she lost me in her rhetoric – and it’s not even about whether I lean Right or Left. Let me explain:

  • The increased incidence of lupus in young women on birth control is a fact. We should all be concerned about this and be engaged in dialogue on how to fix it.
  • Politicization of the Honduran caravan is opinion. In fact, the rhetoric has gone both ways. Depending on where you get your opinion-news, you could believe the caravan was likely being funded by either Donald Trump or George Soros.
  • The overpopulation-poverty-machismo-Catholic theory is opinion. I don’t even know where to begin, but I guess there’s always a way to blame the Catholic Church when you’re talking about birth control.
  • Conservatives trying to outlaw birth control is opinion. I know some will argue that it’s a fact, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this. Living in Texas, I have a number of ultra-conservative friends, and I have never had anyone approach me with the suggestion that we outlaw birth control – and that’s with knowing how much I hate The Pill. To the contrary, I’ve actually been accused of being anti-capitalism because of my attacks on the drug industry and birth control.

Divided We Fall

Women’s health is worth the fight! Lupus induced by birth control is not only the lede; it’s the story. If we can agree on that, then I really don’t care who you think funded the caravan. If we can unite in agreement that birth control is harming women by means of breast cancer, blood clots, Multiple Sclerosis, suicide, infertility, Crohn’s Disease, diabetes… should it really matter to me whether I’m linking arms with a Republican or a Democrat?

I know it may be pie-in-the-sky to think we can rise above political affiliation in this day and age, but we should. This has been going on for far too long.

As far back as 1970, the Nelson Pill Hearings revealed many of the horrible complications linked to birth control. The news coming from the hearings was so devastating that women across the country began to call their doctors asking to be taken off The Pill. If you view politics through a lens of only the past decade or so, it might seem hard to believe that it was a Democratic senator who chaired the hearings, and it was a young Republican senator from Kansas who defended The Pill. Sen. Bob Dole virtually attacked every doctor who testified about troubling side effects.

Ben Gordon, who was Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s lead staffer said, “Dole was on our committee, and when he came, there was no question he was representing the industry.”

The industry has always been organized in promoting and defending its product. Unfortunately, the era surrounding the Nelson Pill Hearings is as close as the opposition has ever come to being organized and unified.

United We Stand

The hearings brought together doctors from all different specialties who felt The Pill had been forced upon them despite insufficient testing. Suddenly, the media was paying attention to doctors, journalists, and authors who had been expressing serious concerns about birth control safety. Perhaps most important, women (many of whom were hearing about these serious side effects for the first time) began to unite.

Alice Wolfson became the face of the hearings after bringing them to a brief halt. Along with several other young feminists, she had come to the hearings with plans to protest the senators, who she felt weren’t really listening to the voices of women. However, after hearing the testimony of several doctors, she famously stood up in the chambers and shouted, “Why are 10 million women being used as guinea pigs!?”

She became fast friends with Barbara Seaman, whose book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, helped launch the hearings. Ms. Seaman later wrote about the hearings saying it brought the “uptown” and “downtown” feminists together on the issue of birth control safety. She and Ms. Wolfson would go on to found the National Women’s Health Network. To this day, it is one of the nation’s top women’s health advocacy groups.

Shouldn’t Be Left (Alone)

With all of this organized opposition to The Pill, what did the hearings accomplish?

Well, The Pill became the first drug ever required to have a patient information booklet included in each pack. I suppose that would be pretty significant if it had been written in laymen terms so people could actually understand it.

And, the drug industry responded by releasing new, lower-dose formulations, which they claimed were safer. Unfortunately, their testing was even less stringent than it had been in the original trials. In fact, none of subsequent generations of hormonal birth control have been proven to be safe.

Clearly, what we as the opposition have done thus far hasn’t been enough. It’s time for more hearings. It’s time to hold the drug companies accountable for the sad state of women’s health. It doesn’t serve you or me – it doesn’t serve the Republicans or Democrats to have women suffering with chronic ailments or even dying in the name of birth control. In the end, it only serves the bottom line of Big Pharma. Maybe that’s what they’re referring to when they keep telling us ‘the benefits still outweigh the risks.’

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2 Comments

  1. I appreciate you entering the dark waters of controversy around the pill from a political perspective. It’s tricky. I just wanted to address 1 point and offer an invitation re your reference to the Catholic Church. I invite you to read the very controversial letter from Pope Paul VI on artificial contraception in the late 60’s. it is a landmark document from many perspectives and its predictive accuracy is uncanny. The Catholic Church is, in my opinion, unfairly criticized around sex and birth control. When people take the time to read about the teachings, they are often surprised and humbled. You’ll find a refreshing message about sexuality and women that is really not found anywhere else. There’s no need to be a believer to benefit from the language and the message. We’re in a mess regarding human sexuality – trafficking, addiction, porn, STD’s, violence, etc. People need to hear another message as we continue to to inform patients (especially female) about the real consequences of modern clinical attempts to “control” female physiology in the name of progress or freedom.

    1. Tracy, thank you for your thoughtful response. When I wrote that there is always a way to blame the Catholic Church, I was hoping to point out the absurdity of the woman jumping from the caravan to overpopulation to the Church. The intellectual gymnastics it sometimes takes to eventually point the finger at the Church is pretty impressive. I agree with everything you say about Humanae Vitae. It’s amazing that a 50-year-old document can offer a ‘refreshing message about sexuality,’ but you are absolutely right. That said, I think I’ll take you up on your invitation, and go back to re-read it.

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