I got Google alerted to a post made by Derren Brown about contraceptive myths on his blog. Bayer Schering Pharma (the company behind the birth control pill Yasmin or Yaz) funded a survey of a 1000 women and one in five of them apparently said they, or people they knew, had used items such a chicken skin, cling film or bread to prevent pregnancy. Other women told the researchers they'd heard Coca Cola, kebabs and crisps could also be effective contraceptives.
This must have delighted Bayer Schering who I'm sure promptly circulated their findings, drumming up support for their credible contraceptive pills. However, someone commented on this post that she had recently conducted her own survey, the results of which showed that most women are pushed to take the pill by their doctors and not offered any alternatives. "I'm not surprised we have a high rate of unwanted pregnancy in the UK if people are thinking it's the pill or nothing," she argued.
The power of pharmaceutical companies and their profit motive has driven alternative contraceptive methods out. Not only are doctors not educated about non-hormonal IUDs, diaphragms, female condoms, spermicides, but the suppression of discussion of these alternatives through marketing campaigns and the grants and funds wielded by the companies has made all other contraceptive methods appear suspicious and untrustworthy. The assumption is made that if a method isn't talked about, and few women use it, that it must be less reliable or less safe than the pill.
The pill makes these companies a lot of money, Yasmin and Yaz makes Bayer Schering more money than any of the other medications it produces. The level of ignorance they were purporting as standard through the survey is immensely useful. If women don't know how to prevent pregnancy, then it's much easier to sell the pill.
Margaret Sanger fought for education, availability, and freedom of choice. She wanted women to know how to prevent pregnancy and to be able to choose, and then be given, the method of contraception they wanted to use. The dominance of the birth control pill in the education of both doctors and women and the resulting lack of discussion and availability of other forms of contraception is in opposition to Margaret Sanger's original motivation. Many women are not getting to choose their contraception, they are being pushed towards one method. A method that might well not suit them, and one which is far from perfect, let alone the most effective.
In criticising the pill, I'm not undermining Margaret Sanger's work, but asking for a reconsideration of how far we've moved away from her ideals.
Back to that comment on Derren Brown's blog - if women believe that their choice for contraception is the pill or nothing and if the pill makes them feel lousy, or causes them health problems then they may well stop taking it. If they have no knowledge of, or trust in, other methods then they are more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. I have heard doctors often argue that research that reflects negatively on the pill should not be released because it may scare women into stopping taking it. This seems a very messed up moralism.
I've been reading Susan Faludi's book 'Backlash' - she dedicates a chapter to the anti-abortion movement that first became powerful in the US under the Reagan administrations of the 1980s. The lobbyists and campaigners involved in this movement did not limit their aggressive techniques to abortion, as a result of their work they also made a massive impact on birth control. The anti-abortion movement inspired massive cutbacks in public and private support and funding for birth control clinics and family planning services. Federal and state aid fell by by $50 million dollars between 1980 and 87. The campaign also persuaded many charities, corporations and foundations to withdraw their donations.
Research into birth control was halted. Government funding was withdrawn, alongside that of corporations and individuals. By the end of the 1980s only one busines was still funding research. Insurance companies stopped covering clinical trials. A 1990 Institute of Medicine study discovered that in that decade the US had fallen heavily from its position as world leader in contraceptive development.
Cuts in funding does not only mean less research being conducted into possible new methods of contraception (much of the research being undertaken was likely concentrated on the pill anyway) - but also research into the side effects of the birth control pill. If there was some concentration on other methods that would have surely been shut down for all available money to be funnelled into pill research - from which the companies could make the most profit. Most of the research into alternatives does seem to have gone predominantly into hormonal-based methods - the injection, patch, ring and implant.
It makes you wonder if there might be a method of contraception that could be taken orally, that could have all the easiness of the pill, but would not need to be taken every day in order to shut down the ovulation cycle. Perhaps there's something out there only found in one type of plant growing in one area of the world that would not have an insiduous whole body effect. If there is it will never be found whilst the pill is still popular.
Emily Otto wrote to me about her experience with her doctor and the pill, and what she said I think is worth including here:
"My doctor put me on Yaz when I went to her regarding my complexion and asked for a referral to a dermatologist. I persisted that I didn’t want to take hormones but she rattled off a list of amazing things it does for you (shorter periods, clear skin etc). So I tried it. After three days of being on the pill I started with daily migraines. I had suffered migraines before but only 2 or 3 times a year.
I went back to my doctor and she insisted it wasn’t the pill but if I was unhappy she could give me the Depo-Provera shot. With the shot I wouldn’t have to worry about taking a pill every day….that was her logic. I of course refused. She told me that I had fluid in my ears and that the migraines were probably due to allergies but to be on the safe side she wanted to refer me to an ENT. I went to the ENT who did a ton of exams: MRI, auditory brainstem response test, and others. He also assured me that the pill did not cause the migraines. The migraines got so intense and the vertigo was so bad that one day I fell out of my chair at work and my boss insisted I go to the ER. The ER docs also assured me that the pill did not cause the migraines and they referred me to a neurologist.
At this point I stopped taking the pill and after a month of being off it the migraines ended. None of the tests came back abnormal. But since going off of Yaz I am unable to drink caffeine, it is an instant trigger for migraines. I have since gotten a new doctor and a GYN and they both agree that Yaz caused the migraines and I am fortunate not to have had a stroke. Regarding my new sensitivity to caffeine, my doctor said that the pill changed the blood flow in my brain. My original concern about my skin turned out to be rosacea, it has nothing to do with acne which was the reason why my original doctor first put me on the pill. The pill pushing mentality of my doctor to address a concern completely unrelated to fertility is appalling. I should have known better than to take the wonder drug."
After writing my previous blog I've been wondering whether there's a backlash against the pill brewing - with the Yasmin lawsuits, the release of 'The Pill: Are You Sure It's For You?', tests into a male contraceptive and recent new stories. Considering history, I have a funny feeling any kind of backlash might not be wholly supportive of women. Women are apparently doing better in the recession, partly because men aren't doing as well and so maybe, just maybe they need to be brought down a peg or two.
It might be argued that women choose to take the pill and so women, and not the pill, are responsible for the problems it has caused. These 'problems' will likely focus on the enhancement of the human race - stuff like that story about the pill making women attracted to feminine-looking men - and possibly the environment - the chemicals from the pill flushing into the drinking water, the sea. If women choose to come off the pill and, due on lack of knowledge, get pregnant, then they'll be seen to be adding to the overpopulation problem. If they decide to get an abortion, well...
At the start of Susan Faludi's book she considers the building drama, suggesting women should be ready to be confronted with the argument that "they gained control over their fertility only to destroy it."
I really hope it swings our way this time.