The side effects of hormonal birth control are notoriously under-recognized. So much so, that I filmed a documentary about them, entitled, Hormoneously Alone, highlighting the severe lack of research since the 1950s. What I learned was shocking. Because hormonal birth control has been available for over 60 years, everyone, doctors included, presume these drugs are completely safe and have very few, ‘rare’ side effects. I spoke to experts in women’s health who have researched the effects of the pill and other forms of hormonal birth control and, contrary to the general consensus, these drugs do elicit many ill-effects that are detrimental to health. These side effects can develop while on the pill but also upon withdrawal as the body struggles to adapt to the loss of synthetic hormones.
My original post on this website documenting my own experience is what drove me to investigate the side effects of hormonal birth control, and ultimately, make a documentary to inform other women. Over four years, hundreds of women have left comments indicating they had similar experiences with hormonal birth control and even more have reached out to me personally for advice. Research on this website and other case stories concur.
With all of the potentially negative health consequences attributed to hormonal birth control, imagine my surprise when I learned that these drugs can be ordered online, without so much as a physician consultation. Of course, since most physicians do not recognize the side effects, I guess ordering online is no less safe than from a physician who ignores the health or experience of his/her patients.
My goal is that women will research and educate themselves about the risks they are taking when ordering birth control online. I hope my articles and my documentary will encourage them to speak up, and ask questions, but what if that does not happen? At least when these drugs are prescribed by a physician there is a small chance the more serious side effects will be recognized. When ordered online, with no health intake or counseling of any sort, the possibility for potentially dangerous health interactions between the pill and the patient increases. This risk is increased for young girls, who do not have the experience to understand the side effects associated with these drugs.
Ordering Birth Control Pills Online
Anyone can order hormonal birth control online. While doing research for my documentary, I investigated the process. There are no safety mechanisms in place to determine whether the information one inputs is truthful or not, or whether the individual might have a family medical history that can affect the choice of the type of hormone prescribed. I know this because I tested it. I went online and created a fake profile with fake information and submitted a request for a three month trial. It took me about five minutes from start to finish. I tried multiple vendors, some of the more popular ones, and none of them had any issues with prescribing a pill for me. Surprisingly, none of these vendors asked when my last OBGYN appointment was or if there was a family medical history for any cancers that the birth control pill may help promote or any other health issue that might be exacerbated by the pill. A genetic predisposition may increase one’s risk for certain illnesses and cancers. Breast cancer, for example, may be exacerbated by certain synthetic hormones. Autoimmune disease may also be exacerbated by these hormones.
I wanted to see how far I could push the dial, so I also falsely claimed to smoke cigarettes daily, had high blood pressure and migraines with aura. These are all cases where hormonal birth control is clearly contraindicated because of the elevated risk for blood clots. And yet, even with these risk factors, I was able to order a prescription. There was no dialogue with an online doctor or chat system. It was just me, my mouse, and my keyboard.
I am all for women’s rights and easy access to medications, but as a woman who understands the risks of these drugs, who has experienced some of them, this enraged me. Why are women not told of these risks? Online prescriptions seriously lack the ability to oversee a patient’s full chart and medical history, to understand a patient’s concerns, and to have the foresight to avoid a medication that may catalyze a genetic predisposition. This seems totally careless.
In today’s highly politicized landscape, it is difficult to talk about birth control safety and side effects, especially with the current onslaught of attacks against women’s health care options. Recently, over the counter hormonal birth control has been approved by the FDA. This eliminates any and all preliminary precautions and the online ordering has become even easier. Regardless of where we are buying these pills, I think we have to acknowledge that talking about safety and accessibility is not an attack on women’s rights, rather a concern for their well-being. I believe the ability to order medication online is generally a good thing. The accessibility of these online birth control pills not only allows a user to obtain them quickly, but also, discreetly, and inexpensively. It is, for the most part, hassle-free. This works well for the quick-click generation and society that we have evolved into. Women should always be in charge of their bodies, and this new technology affords them that opportunity, which is a really powerful and important idea in and of itself. I do, however, struggle with the idea that we might be missing possible interactions that could result in serious side effects and health issues. These websites do not have a warning anywhere, just, in my opinion, a vague questionnaire. As you will see below, there is little to no health intake when ordering and no counseling regarding side effects.
The Age of Consent
In my research for the documentary, I wondered about the accessibility of online ordering to young girls. As I flipped through the magazines that I once read religiously as a teenager, now, from an adult’s perspective, I see just how targeted the ads can be. In the most common teenage magazines, there are ads almost every 5 pages that push ordering hormonal contraceptives online. These ads are impossible to miss and can be very persuasive to young girls.
Imagine a parent and not knowing what medications your child was on. Imagine a child not understanding the seriousness of the birth control pill and taking too many because they missed a few? Imagine a child taking the pill not knowing why they are feeling poorly, suddenly getting migraines, a possible sign of neurological issues including stroke, or having labored breathing, a sign of pulmonary emboli. These side effects are more common than you would think. Is it smart to have such accessible medications with potentially severe side effects available online without so much as a health warning? Will teenagers read the fine print? Yet, the FDA allows online ordering. It would be easier for a child to click and order rather than having the uncomfortable conversation with their parents or their doctor. A fake profile and credit card is all that is needed.
Since most patients do not ask questions when being prescribed the birth control pill by a physician and, from my experience, most doctors do not offer this information up, what would prompt the conversation online? Is a child who is taking the pill going to read the pamphlet, and if so, will they understand it?
Candy From Strangers
When the package of hormonal birth control came to my door about a week after placing the order, it had some candies and chocolates with it. This felt ironic. “Don’t take candy from strangers,” feels oddly similar to “Don’t take pills from the internet,” or the idea of candy not being healthy for you accompanying the controversial birth control pill. It all felt wrong. Because of the emphasis that providers put on the safety of birth control pills, it seems to negate the impact these pills have on the female body. The pill may be generally safe to take every day, but what are the effects that we are missing under the surface? Are they actually safe even if we do not see the effects immediately? Is the pill for everybody?
It is extremely important that women be in charge of their bodies, but having autonomy means having an understanding of the full picture. Women should absolutely be able to order pills online, but they should also be given adequate information to make that decision and protect themselves against possible harm. Omitting critical health information in favor of accessibility does nothing to serve women’s health interests. Women need to understand the side effects associated with these drugs in order to make an informed decision.
I believe we, as a society, are sacrificing leniency on a topic we truly do not know much about for quick and cheap pill availability. I think we need to revisit the accessibility of these pills and take a step back to understand the potential harm we are causing.
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