Can a Man Weigh in on The Pill?

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A man's opinion of the pill.
After many months of intense research, I firmly believe the birth control pill stinks, but who am I to say? I’m not an M.D. or a PhD. Even worse, I’m not a woman.

At the risk of being counter-cultural, I’d like to be completely transparent. I’m a bald, middle-aged, Catholic, white man from Texas. Clearly, I’m not allowed to have an opinion on The Pill, but I do. And, I’m passionate about it!

Now that I’ve given you every label you could possibly need to dismiss what I’m about to share, I plead with you to hear me out. My passion for this subject is not driven by a moral or political agenda. I have no deep-seated desire to tell women what they should or shouldn’t do. In fact, I have only one agenda – to expose the very real dangers of hormonal contraceptives.

I’m telling you who I am up front because we live in a culture of extremes. We’ve lost the art of moderation. It seems we are all either Conservative or Liberal; Pro- or Anti-; Us or Them… Defined by extremes, there is no middle ground. Regardless of which side we’re on, when someone offers a different perspective, we assume they are ‘one of them.’

I never dreamed I would be a women’s health activist, but that’s what I’ve become. I’m not even sure that label can stick to me, but I’m eager to wear it, even if I have to clip it on with safety pins.

My Distaste for The Pill

My distaste for The Pill predated any religion or spirituality in my life. For that matter, it also predated being bald, middle-aged, and Texan.

My wife and I were young and deeply in love. Somehow, that fact came up in a discussion with her doctor. She had gone in with allergies, but came out with The Pill. That was fine by us. We hated condoms, and this sounded like the perfect solution. The doctor didn’t mention any side effects, and since it had been on the market for decades, she never thought to question its safety.

On about the fourth month, a little pamphlet fell out as she opened the package. I picked it up, and started reading. I was horrified. “Honey, did the doctor mention any of these side effects to you?”

“What side effects?”

We sifted through the complicated text, and discussed some of the warnings — breast and cervical cancer, strokes, and heart disease. They were especially disconcerting given her family history. She asked whether the doctor would have given it to her if he thought it was dangerous.

Ultimately, it was a long, thoughtful conversation that ended with me saying, “I can’t tell you what to do, but for me, if taking this pill means I get to spend even one less day with you at the end of our lives, it’s not worth it.”

It surprised me how much relief that statement brought her. The pills had apparently been making her feel crazy, and she decided to stop taking them immediately. Beyond my wife, my attitude about The Pill was indifferent. I never thought to ask my sisters if they had read the pamphlet, or if their doctors had warned them. It didn’t seem like my place.

Was it my place? Am I even allowed to talk about that with women beyond my wife? Where do my rights and responsibilities end?

Years passed. Then, a series of events brought me in contact with information that left me a little smarter than the average bear… at least where The Pill is concerned. When you’re privy to information that you know most women haven’t been told about The Pill, does your responsibility change? I think it does. I have sisters and nieces who suffered consequences because I didn’t discuss The Pill with them sooner. I believe anyone who learns the truth about The Pill should act on the urge to shout the news, and drown out the silence of the doctors.

My Focus on The Pill

As a writer and media producer, it was work that first inspired my pill quest. Writing requires a natural curiosity. Whether I’m developing a documentary or creating a marketing piece for a corporate client, I’m always looking for an interesting story.

A medical project early last year brought me in contact with one of the world’s leading authorities on a certain disease (I will be more specific about the disease in future posts). I sat in on a meeting as this revered doctor spoke to a group of young specialists about the basics of the disease.

He said, “We’ve known from the beginning that estrogen plays a key role… because 75- to 80-percent of diagnoses are women, and we know the role estrogen plays in a woman’s immune system.” He explained how environmental estrogens get into our system, and mimic natural estrogen.

My ‘interesting story’ radar went off even though it had nothing to do with the project at hand. I pulled out my phone. A quick Google search revealed that the incidence of this disease began climbing rapidly in the early 70’s.

I benefited from limited knowledge. All I knew of the disease was a time frame, and what triggered it – chemicals mimicking natural estrogen. The only example I could think of was birth control pills. Based on what the good doctor had said, I assumed the connection must be well known in the medical community, but was surprised I had never heard about it.

I struck up a conversation with him after the meeting, and asked exactly what role The Pill had played in all of this. He replied, “None at all.”

I was dumbfounded. “That seems impossible.” I wasn’t doubting him. In fact, I completely believed him, regardless how impossible it seemed. After all, he was the world-renowned authority.

He doubled down, “There hasn’t been any evidence linking The Pill to [the disease].”

The conversation continued for a while, but didn’t advance. It concluded with him saying, “Certainly, there are more questions than answers. And more research needs to be done.”

I walked away feeling confused – as if he had waved his hand and said, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

That Nagging Feeling

I was still thinking about the encounter when I got back to my hotel room that evening. I pulled out my computer and did a search for the disease, plus “oral contraceptives.” Among the top results was an article about a new study that found women who take The Pill are 50% more likely to have this disease than nonusers.

I wondered whether the doctor had been unaware of this study. The question didn’t linger long. He was quoted halfway through the article. In black-and-white, the world-renowned authority told women they shouldn’t stop taking The Pill because of this study, and that they needed to weigh the benefits against a very small increased risk of developing the disease.

Had he lied to me? At best, he had certainly obfuscated the facts. Maybe he just thought it would be too deep for a simpleton, and it was easier to say that no connection existed.

During the next few weeks, I continued my search, and found several studies over the past 50 years that had linked The Pill to this disease. And for each study, it seemed there were always leading authorities who were eager to say the benefits still outweighed the risks. This was a pattern I observed frequently as I broadened my search to include other ailments.

Questions About The Pill

Those early searches left me with two burning questions that drove me to dig deeper:

  • Are doctors being forthright with women about hormonal contraceptives so that they can make truly informed decisions?
  • Why is the medical community always eager to downplay studies that find risks associated with birth control pills?

Answers to the second question tend to dance around the political landscape. So, for the purposes of my posts on Hormones Matter, I will focus more on the answers to the first question. However, I do think it’s important to lay a little more foundation to explain how I formed my opinions.

In my next post, I will tell you how a feminist, a crusty old reporter, and a 102-year old man fueled my continued interest.

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10 Comments

  1. Have you heard of Brian Deer? He’s a former journalist for the Sunday Times, and in the 1980s, he carried out an investigation which showed that most of the long term safety testing for the pill had been faked. The article in which he broke the story is on his website:
    http://briandeer.com/social/medical-fraud.htm

    You have to wonder why the pharmaceutical industry felt the need to falsify their safety tests. Was it just cost cutting, or were there serious safety concerns that they wanted to keep hidden?

    At one time there was a male hormonal contraceptive under development. Researchers discovered that Depo Provera, an injectible women’s contraceptive, is also quite effective as a contraceptive in men. It also suppresses testosterone production in men though, which has a lot of undesirable effects and makes it unsuitable for use as a contraceptive on its own. However, if you inject it in conjunction with testosterone, you have a highly effective male contraceptive, which for some reason never made it past the clinical trials stage (even though it was safe, effective and fully reversible according to the published research). Why did it never make it into production? You’d have thought there’d be quite a big market for it, since there’s plenty of men who want to play, but who don’t want to be unexpectedly stuck with 18 years of child support payments. Yet it never made it in to production. Why?

    I think it’s because many of the men who were given it experienced problems that were glossed over in the final reports, such as depression and other psychological problems while they taking it, and following discontinuation, long term problems with reduced fertility and lowered and irregular testosterone production.

    The one group of men who routinely expose themselves to synthetic hormones are bodybuilders taking anabolic steroids. If you look at what the more clued up ones among them do, they’re very careful to not take steroids continuously for more than 12 weeks, and they have an elaborate protocol of “post cycle therapy” to restart their endocrine system following the end of a steroid cycle. The reason they don’t take steroids continuously for more than 12 weeks at the most, is because beyond that, there’s an increasing risk of the endocrine system being permanently damaged and failing to properly restart hormone production when the steroids are discontinued. I suspect that the pharmaceutical companies discovered the same thing when they were trialling their male contraceptive, and that’s the real reason it never made it to market.

    Women have an endocrine system that’s quite a bit more complicated than men’s, since it has to do all sorts of stuff involving maturing and releasing eggs, and building and then breaking down (or not, depending on whether pregnancy occurs) a uterine lining. You’d expect, if anything, it to be even more susceptible to damage than the male endocrine system (which is mainly just controlling the release of testosterone and other hormones). So I do have a suspicion that long term use of hormonal contraception does cause problems that the pharmaceutical industry have kept hidden from the public, such as infertility and maybe other problems such as osteoporosis and other long term health effects caused by disrupted hormone production. I know for a fact that progestins, the main hormonal component of contraceptive pills and other forms of hormonal contraception, have been linked to severe depression, emotional instability and other psychological problems in transgender women, so I’d say it’s highly likely they can have a similar effect on natal women too.

    1. Hugh, this would be a fascinating article for HM, the way we view male birth control options vs female options particularly with safety and side effects. The doping issue too highlights the stark contrasts in how we view steroid safety between men and women. Would you be interested in writing such an article?

  2. Thanks for the kind comments.
    BOB, I hope that’s an affirmative response to the title, and not an invitation to brawl.
    Jess, I agree that it’s money in part, but there is something deeper that I will touch on in a future post.
    Agnes, I have heard they are still working on “Sweetening the Pill.” I very much look forward to watching it as well.

  3. Thank you for this blog; and I am looking forward to reading more as well as to watching the documentary “Miracle Pill”. Readers may be interested in a recently released documentary about the possible sequelae of abortion (breast cancer, pre-mature birth and emotional illness). http://hushfilm.com/
    There is also “Sweetening the Pill” which was supposed to be turned into a documentary by Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake. I have not heard any news about it in over a year and hope that they did not get discouraged. Does anyone know if that project is coming along?
    https://www.theguardian.com/news/video/2015/jun/22/the-pill-could-could-birth-control-methods-kill-you-video

  4. Thoughtful, well-written and a real pleasure to read this all important perspective from a man. When the pill first burst on the scene, it was being prescribed like candy. In my case, thankfully I didn’t stay on them too long because the facial breakouts, headaches and bloat became too much for me to bear. Oh yes, the spotting that seemed to appear from out of nowhere. But so many women were on them for years and years. Doctors rarely talked about sides effects (and this is true of so many medications as well).

    Looking forward to your next article. Your wife is fortunate to have found such a loving, caring man. Thank you so much for speaking about a subject that many men consider taboo.

  5. Wow, the answer to your second question is money. I was told in college that I only thought the pill was making me a moody, acne prone, tearful mess; but surprisingly when I stopped taking it those side effects went away. Later on in life I met a wonderful OBGYN who was able to explain that I was sensitive to the progesterone in birth control pills and shouldn’t ever take it.

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