Banging My Head Against the Wall: Questioning Birth Control Safety

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My position as a women’s health advocate is frequently challenged merely because I am a man. I’m okay with that because it’s a valid point. I will never experience firsthand many of the issues that concern me. However, I don’t believe that means I should be forced to remain silent on matters related to women’s health. My passion for the cause is nurtured by a dear love for my wife and daughters, as well as for my sisters and nieces, not to mention fond memories of a loving mother who lost her life to estrogen-sensitive breast cancer. It is with them in mind that I would like to issue a challenge of my own:

If you truly care about the health of women, take a moment to consider where you stand on birth control and think critically about why you stand there.

Visions of Utopia

I celebrated the recent news that a jury awarded Dewayne Johnson $289 million in his lawsuit against Monsanto. The former school groundskeeper sued the makers of Roundup for not being forthcoming with customers about the dangers of their product. He believed the glyphosate in Roundup caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the jury agreed.

I was ecstatic to see the subsequent momentum—the number of lawsuits against Monsanto jumped to about 8,000, and Vietnam actually demanded Monsanto pay victims of Agent Orange, another Monsanto product and a chemical cousin of glyphosate.

People were finally paying attention to the horrible consequences of using this toxic chemical. For a moment, I thought this might translate to hormonal contraceptives. (I’m not sure how I made that leap, but Utopian visions aren’t generally known for being bound by rational thought.) At any rate, I was sure people would start turning on birth control just as they were with Roundup.

Suing for Side Effects

Then, reality set in. Those 8,000 lawsuits will probably settle and soon be forgotten. Before we know it, people will freely be spraying Roundup again, and Monsanto will be off the hook because they will do so knowing the risks.

The connection between Roundup and hormonal contraceptives is actually much stronger than it may first seem. Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer, also manufactures other toxic chemicals, which represent the most popular birth control brands in the world – and these brands have legal issues of their own. Yaz/Yasmin paid out $2.04 billion to settle over 10,000 blood-clot lawsuits as of January 2016. They paid another $57 million to heart attack and stroke victims, and $21.5 million for gallbladder damage. Those numbers have likely increased, as several thousand cases remain unsettled and more suits are being filed each day.

It Begins with One

The Roundup avalanche began with one person. At least for a day or two, everyone knew who Dewayne Johnson was. His case focused a lot of attention on the risks of Roundup and the manufacturer’s willingness to overlook those dangers for the sake of profits.

There are innumerable heartbreaking stories of young women who have been maimed or killed by their birth control. Any one of these could have been ‘the One’ that launched an avalanche against hormonal birth control. These stories fill the internet. Let’s pick one.

In 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) ran a story about a mother who was suing Bayer Healthcare for the death of her daughter. A healthy 18-year old, Miranda Scott went to the gym after 5-weeks on Yasmin. She collapsed while on the elliptical machine unable to breathe. An autopsy revealed she died from pulmonary emboli, blood clots in the lungs. It was only after her death that her mother began researching Yasmin, and discovered it was the likely cause of her blood clots and very early death.

At this point, Bayer had already paid out over $1 billion in blood clot related settlements. But, here’s how they responded to the lawsuit in a statement to the CBC:

“We are very disappointed in Justice Crane’s decision to certify a class in Ontario in an ongoing lawsuit regarding Yaz and Yasmin. No decision has been made on the merits of the case. We have filed a request with the Court for leave to appeal the decision and are evaluating our legal options… At Bayer patient safety comes first and we fully stand behind, Yaz and Yasmin.”

Seven years have passed since Miranda Scott’s death, and Bayer has paid out another billion-plus dollars in settlements. I understand why Bayer still stands behind their product – it’s a moneymaker, which honestly probably ranks a little higher than patient safety in their eyes. What I can’t understand is why women’s health advocates still stand behind hormonal birth control.

The Birth Control Ideology

The narrative has been defined in such a way that ‘birth control’ equals ‘The Pill’ equals ‘Women’s Rights.’ This is incredibly fortunate for the pharmaceutical companies because any ‘attack’ on their product can be spun as an attack on Women’s Rights.

So, here’s where I challenge you to rethink your stance on birth control as it relates to hormonal contraceptives in three quick steps:

1) Research the Risks of Birth Control

Go to your favorite search engine and type, “Oral Contraceptives + [pick a disease/side effect/complication]” and scroll through the results. You don’t even have to invest a lot of time; just read the headlines and synopses to get a feel for what’s out there. Do this with 3 or 4 different complications that seem really diverse.

One of the enduring statements from the Nelson Pill Hearings was that these potent little pills leave no tissue unaffected. For me, this exercise drove home that point. It’s pretty incredible to contemplate the breadth of the myriad complications. Just consider some of the ones I’ve written about on this website – depression, hair loss, lupus, multiple sclerosis, migraines, infertility, and irritable bowel disease.

2) Why Just The Pill?

These days, hormonal contraceptives can be delivered via rings, patches, injectables, or IUDs. The vehicle doesn’t really matter. They’ve all been shown to have their own inherent risks. So, why are they usually considered the only choice when it comes to family planning?

When The Pill first came out, Dr. David Clark, a world-renowned neurologist mused that it had been granted a sort of “diplomatic immunity” because of irrational fears of overpopulation. Today, that diplomatic immunity has been galvanized by its equally irrational alignment with Women’s Rights.

Why irrational? Consider this. Holly Grigg-Spall wrote Sweetening The Pill, a wonderful book on the dangers of The Pill, its addictive qualities, and the corporate motivations behind its promotion. Hollywood producers approached her about developing a documentary on the same topic. She wrote about the disheartening experience for Hormones Matter. After investing a lot of herself into the project, she received an email from one of the other women working on the project expressing her thought that

“…there was always a small concern in the back of my mind about unintentionally aiding the right-wing agenda.”

I felt Holly’s pain as I read the article. I know what it’s like to pour yourself into a project, only to have it grind to a halt. But on a deeper level, I felt her frustration with the ‘system’ (for lack of a better word.) Whenever I hear something like this, I think of a quote often attributed to Golda Mier, “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

To paraphrase, we will only be able to prioritize women’s health (and rights) when we care more about exposing the risks of birth control than we worry about giving ammunition to our political rivals.

3) Are There Birth Control Options?

In her enlightening book, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, Betsy Hartmann breaks down the fallacy of overpopulation in the Third World and demonstrates how population control policies influenced the current look of birth control here in the US. She writes:

“Married to population control, family planning has been divorced from the concern for women’s health and well-being that inspired the first feminist crusaders for birth control…A family planning program designed to improve health and to expand women’s control over reproduction looks very different indeed from one whose main concern is to reduce birth rates as fast as possible.”

She suggests that if a contraceptive policy was truly concerned with women’s health, it would do more to promote barrier methods that also protect against sexually transmitted diseases, or natural methods that allow for child spacing without introducing internal pollutants to the woman’s body.

In fact, natural forms of fertility awareness have enjoyed growing popularity among young women in recent years. This shouldn’t be confused with the highly ineffective rhythm method. Nor is it exclusive to religious-based ‘natural family planning.’ While the Creighton Model and Billings Method have begun to appeal to women outside the Roman Catholic faith, there are also successful secular versions of fertility awareness available from sources like the Red Tent Sisters.

Planned Parenthood claims that fertility awareness methods are only about 80% effective. However, a report published in the Osteopathic Journal of Medicine in 2013 found the overall effectiveness of fertility awareness methods when used correctly to be greater than 95% (Creighton 99.5%; Billings 97%). Another study of poor urban women in Delhi found the Billings Method to be 99.86% effective. These numbers are comparable to The Pill, but without all the risks.

Take Aways

For a deeper dig into this topic, I highly recommend the two eye-opening books previously referenced: Reproductive Rights and Wrongs and Sweetening The Pill.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you Mike for this piece. Our family is currently living a nightmare due to the dangers of hormonal contraceptives. On the date that this piece was posted, September 27, 2018, our 20 year old daughter died of a massive pulmonary embolism. The autopsy results revealed blood clots in each lung. Based on the tragic stories that I have read on the internet since her death, I am certain that the contraceptive she was taking lead to the blot clots and ultimately her death. I applaud your mission of being a man who is an advocate for women’s health. I too plan to adopt that mission. Not only as a tribute to my daughter but also because of the many other women family members and friends who I love dearly. Useful information on safe alternative contraceptive methods is unfortunate quite sparse. We have practically been programmed to accept the pill as not only a safe method of contraception but for many, the only method of contraception. My family is an example of this falsehood. The pill ravaged my daughter’s young otherwise healthy body and her resulting death was quick and sudden. The clots did such extensive damage to her body that none, not one, of her organs could be donated. There are many conditions that are readily labeled “silent killers”. Hormonal pills should be at the top of that list.

    1. Anthony, I cannot comprehend the pain and grief you must be experiencing. Your family will be in my prayers.
      Thank you for taking the time to share your encouraging words. If you would like to talk offline, I would be grateful for the chance to speak with you. Please email me at mgaskins@gmail.com and I can give you my number.

      1. It would be an honor and a pleasure to speak with you. I will send you an email so that we can connect. Thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers.

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