There have been two very important and insightful events in the last couple of months. The FDA investigation into Yaz I will be writing on this week, once my piece for the Ms. blog has been published. Today the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced a recall on one million packets of their birth control pills. Errors during processing caused these packets to have inactive sugar pills placed out of sequence - putting women at risk of becoming pregnant. I was quoted for The Washington Post health blog this morning (quotes taken from a piece published on the 50th anniversary of the Pill):
'Pfizer recall the newest troubling development around birth control.'
I was then contacted by the writer for my reaction to this event. I am happy to see this article draw attention back to the Yaz debacle as it is otherwise being conveniently hustled out of sight. Here is how I responded:
Although I feel anxious for those women who will be effected by the Pfizer recall (and I ask, who will help with the ensuing medical costs of those who do get pregnant? Will there be compensation for those wanting an abortion but not those who decide to continue with the pregnancy?), I do hope that this event puts women using birth control pills back in touch with the reality of taking a pill every day. I hope it reminds us all that the Pill is a drug (and a product of a billion dollar industry) and should as such be viewed with a critical eye. Women are encouraged by medical authorities and society as a whole to take a powerful drug every day, often for a decade or more, often from when they are in their teens. We need to discuss this fact and ask why.
Much discussion skirts around the reality of the Pill - see for example the recent 'new' research reported as finding that the Pill treats period pain. The Pill does not prevent period pain, the Pill prevents periods. Many women do not even know this, they do not know the bleeding that occurs inbetween packets is a withdrawal bleed and not menstruation. They believe the Pill regulates periods, when it does not. I think considering there are millions of women on this drug that this situation seriously questions the validity of their assumed informed consent.
What is interesting to me here is that in the reports on the Yaz findings it was emphasized that there are far more health risks involved in being pregnant than being on the Pill. In the reports on the Pfizer recall the emphasis is that the pills hold no 'safety risks.' Well, which is it? Either pregnancy is a safety risk, a state that is bad for your health, an illness to be avoided - as is so often emphasized by medical authorities and surrounding media in birth control discussions, or it is not. We cannot manipulate truths and half-truths to produce propaganda for the Pill and hormonal contraceptives as a whole. If women who have taken the drug can get pregnant accidently well within the usual logic of these discussions the pills do hold a safety risk. And again, who is going to compensate them for the risks involved in any ensuing pregnancies that the women decide to go through with? Pfizer?
Of course women do not only have two states of existence to choose from - pregnancy or on the Pill. If women are scared into coming off the Pill, as many will fear, by these reports on Bayer and Pfizer's products and they get pregnant as a result this only goes to show how women are not being given proper information about alternative contraception methods. There are alternatives and some are as, if not more, effective at preventing pregnancy. And all of them hold far fewer health risks than hormonal contraceptives.
I hope women are led to question their trust of the Pill because of these events. I hope that we as a society are forced to take the Pill off its pedestal and elevate the non-hormonal alternatives, make them more visible and talk honestly about their use and reliability. I hope women consider educating themselves about their bodies. Understanding their own cycle is key to prevention of unwanted pregnancy whatever method of contraception they choose to use. The dominance of the Pill over alternatives in birth control discussion does in itself cause women to take it incorrectly, miss pills, become pregnant, precisely because they are so often kept in the dark as to the reality of how it works on their body and how their body works. The information most often available is always misleading and slanted - I believe to support the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry that has been getting an easy ride on its most widely used medications for far too long.