What every woman should know about the pill
Of all the many drugs on the market, there is only one pill known as ‘The Pill’.
The Pill is a combination of synthetic female hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – used to mimic pregnancy and suppress female ovulation and therefore fertility, reducing the chance of unwanted pregnancy.
How did it come to be so well known and widely used and in fact, how did it come to be?
The History of The Pill
It turns out that The Pill has its genesis in Nazi Germany, where doctors and scientists were testing ethinyl oestradiol (the same chemical still being used in hormonal birth control today), as a chemical sterilisation agent in their Auschwitz concentration camp.
The harms of using synthetic oestrogens, which are powerful chemicals that can affect every cell in the body, soon became apparent, but doctors continued to use them for various ‘off-label’ indications after the war.
The use of smaller doses of oestrogens for birth control was resurrected in the 1950s by Margaret Sanger – a woman whose mother had died early after 11 births and 7 miscarriages and who wanted to develop a ‘magic pill’ to prevent unwanted pregnancies – and Dr Gregory Pincus. Ignoring the many warnings about the danger of synthetic oestrogens, their collaboration attracted the interest of big names with big money who were already active in the fight for population control.
The use of The Pill was approved by the FDA in America based on a study of only 132 Puerto Rican women who took The Pill for just 12 months.
The information presented to the FDA showed its efficacy but concealed its (lack of) safety, as the 5 previously healthy women who had died while taking The Pill and been buried without autopsy were not included in the data. The Pill was approved for use at a time when there was a sexual revolution in the West, women wanted to control their bodies and their fertility and plan their families and careers, and at the same time there were fears of a worldwide population explosion.
During the first decade of its use, doctors reported women suffering and sometimes dying with clots – strokes and emboli. Despite mounting evidence, the drug companies refused to take responsibility for the grave complications, but employed a public relations strategy to cast doubt on the findings, ironically claiming the numbers were too small to draw any conclusions and more research was needed.
In 1968 the British Medical Journal published the retrospective Inman-Vessey study which showed a 7.5-fold increased risk of death from stroke in young women taking The Pill. It was a large and sound study and the dangers of hormonal birth control could no longer be ignored, yet doctors continued to downplay the risks and encourage women to take it.
Increasing concerns about this and many other problems in the pharmaceutical industry led to the establishment of what came to be known as the Nelson Pill Hearings, a Senate inquiry into ‘Competitive Problems in the Drug Industry’ chaired by Senator Gaylord Nelson. The hearings began in 1967 and ran for ten years, looking at the vast range of issues in the drug industry (most of which are still problematic today) and in 1970 the committee turned its attention to birth control.
Evidence was shared by expert doctors on a range of complications related to The Pill. Yet now, 50 years later, it continues to be used by women worldwide and it is not a safer version, as is often stated.
The makers of Yaz and Yasmin, today’s most popular brands of The Pill, have paid out more than $2 billion to settle over 10,000 blood clot lawsuits and the numbers continue to rise. And many of the ‘rare’ complications that doctors were attributing to The Pill at the hearings are manifested in large numbers today.
The information from these hearings was suppressed by the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry’s massive public relations machine, supported by the push for population control, and millions of women still suffer the consequences of this suppressed information.
Even today, when you begin to research side effects associated with The Pill, you are met with certain responses: (1)
“This doesn’t prove a connection” – usually followed by “More research needs to be done.” This has hampered those with safety concerns ever since the early days.
“This doesn’t mean women should stop taking The Pill.” This often comes from the lead investigator who has just uncovered the link to a chronic or deadly complication.
“This only affects X women per 10,000.” But with millions of women taking The Pill, any number per 10,000 adds up quickly.
“The risk is greater if you are over 35 or smoke.” Which is true, but young women who don’t smoke are also at risk of serious and life-threatening complications.
“The benefits still outweigh the risks.” Benefits to whom and risks to whom?
The continuing mantra was, and is: The benefits still outweigh the risks. The supposed benefit to society from population control vs the risk to individuals. We are manipulated to think that the end justifies the means, and that the health of women is expendable.
Side-effects of The Pill
There are well known side-effects of The Pill and others that are less well recognised. This is a short summary of what we know, which we can gloss over, or allow ourselves to deeply feel in our bodies what is happening to women all over the world.
Many side effects of The Pill occur as common ailments, like breast cancer, migraines and strokes, and these illnesses have grown even more common since the introduction of hormonal contraceptives. They have become so common, so familiar, that we seem to have forgotten about looking for what could be causing them.
Some side effects, such as migraine and depression, can occur soon after taking The Pill but others can take some time to precipitate, which may hinder us associating the cause with the effect. Doctors tend to downplay the effects of The Pill to the point where they often don’t attribute the effects to the drug at all.
The correlation between birth control pills and migraines has been known for decades, as has their connection to an increased risk of stroke, which causes more deaths in women each year than breast cancer, including and increasingly in young women.
The veins in the legs of women on The Pill dilate and blood flow slows down, leading to relative stagnation which can contribute to dangerous and deadly clotting, causing strokes and pulmonary emboli. And not only are newer formulations of The Pill not safer, some like Yaz and Yasmin which contain drosperinone have been found to be two to three times more likely to cause clotting than previous generations of The Pill.
The Pill can cause atherosclerosis, plaque build-up or hardening of the arteries, and the risks increase the longer you take The Pill. While clots are a short term, reversible risk (if you survive) the risk of atherosclerosis continues long after you stop taking The Pill and could lead to stroke or heart attack. Some of the leading factors that can contribute to atherosclerosis include: high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, and high cholesterol levels, all of which can be raised by taking The Pill, through the effect of these synthetic hormones on other hormones in the body.
At the time of the Nelson Pill Hearings, in 1970, the link between taking The Pill and developing breast cancer came to light, yet millions of women continued to take it and are still taking it today. At that time, the lifetime risk of breast cancer in American women was 1 in 20. Today, it is 1 in 8, an increase of 210% in 50 years.
In 2017 a large Danish study reported that women on hormonal contraceptives were 20% more likely to develop breast cancer, and this study included the lower dose pills, hormonal IUDs and progestin-only pills. Oncologist Dr Marissa Weiss said:
“Gynaecologists just assumed that a lower dose of hormone meant a lower risk of cancer. But the same elevated risk is there.” (2)
The use of synthetic oestrogen to override the production of natural hormones can lead to long term consequences of delayed fertility or even infertility and many women stop taking The Pill when they are ready to have children only to find that they are not able to do so.
Depression and mood disorders
We frequently dismiss irritability and depression as minor side effects of birth control that can be treated with more medication – antidepressants.
It has been known since the early days that The Pill affected the moods of many women and the rates of depression and suicide had increased. The newer generations of birth control have not eased the problem. A 2016 Danish study showed that women taking hormonal birth control were 70% more likely to experience depression and in 2017 the same research group found that the depression experienced was more intense than that of women who had never taken hormonal birth control and that taking birth control more than tripled the risk of suicide.
Autoimmune disease (AI)
There are now nearly 100 different diseases under this classification, all of which have in common the fact that they are due to the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues. There is a genetic predisposition to these diseases, but they are activated by environmental triggers. Natural oestrogens play a vital role in a woman’s immune system. But synthetic oestrogens throw this delicate system out of balance and confuse the immune system, which can then attack the body’s own healthy tissues. Nearly 80% of all autoimmune diseases occur in women.
The Pill has been shown to bring on, or worsen disease activity in:
· Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
· Multiple sclerosis (MS)
· Crohn’s Disease
· Ulcerative colitis
· Thyroid dysfunction
and cause hair loss, liver disease and gallstones.
It’s not just about women
The World Health Organisation classified hormonal contraceptives as Group 1 Carcinogens in 2005. While the risk may be most significant for those women who choose to take them every day, sometimes for years or decades, they are not the only ones who are harmed.
Ethinyl oestradiol is a synthetic hormone which is 100 times more potent than our natural oestrogen. In order to be effective at preventing pregnancy, these molecules cannot be broken down by stomach acid. They pass through the body virtually unchanged, meaning that millions of women are flushing these powerful chemicals into the sewerage system every day.
Environmental scientists have known of the effects of these oestrogens on the feminisation of fish for years, but what are they doing to all of us?
A 2017 study found that sperm counts in human men have dropped by more than half since 1973. The theory is that male foetuses are being exposed to environmental factors in the womb, which are antagonistic to their male sex hormones and are affecting their reproductive development.
What do we do with all this information? It is beyond question that The Pill causes serious health problems for women in particular, and it is increasingly apparent that it may cause problems for all of us. The Pill has come to hold an iconic place in contemporary culture and the narrative has been defined in such a way that ‘birth control’ equals ‘The Pill’ equals ‘Women’s Rights’. Which is fortunate for the drug companies as any ‘attack’ on The Pill can be spun as an attack on Women’s Rights. There is social pressure on young women to take The Pill, and they are assuming the risk to their health while the only ones benefitting are the pharmaceutical companies. Women are making their decision based on minimally informed consent, many trusting that their doctor knows best. The same profession that not so long ago told us smoking cigarettes was good for us.
“When you’re privy to information about The Pill, and you know most women haven’t been given that information, does your responsibility change? I think it does.” (3)
Mike Gaskins, author of “In the Name of The Pill”
The above pages are a summary of the wonderful book by Mike Gaskins called “In the Name of The Pill” which was introduced to me by a friend, and I can highly recommend reading the whole book for a heartfelt, detailed and nuanced exposé of the facts. As a 60-year-old woman, wife, mother and grandmother, who just happens to be a doctor, I was horrified that I did not know these facts. I was not taught them in medical school, which is one factor that needs to be addressed, but I also took The Pill from the ages of 17 to 35 and had every opportunity to know them from the intelligence of my own body.
Supply and demand (or, you get what you ask for)
We may assume that women are innocent recipients, even victims, of all of this, but how is it that women are willing to override the knowing of their own bodies to take powerful hormones that can have harmful and even lethal effects? We can say that we did not know, but is that really true?
I know for myself, that The Pill made me feel awful. I was irritable and miserable for the nearly 20 years I took it and it is quite possible that my moodiness contributed to the several relationship breakups I went through, and to my dependence on alcohol (which only made matters worse). But I had gone through a termination after an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 17 and did not want to go through that experience again. And I wanted to be able to have sex with whom I wanted it, when I wanted it, without the inconvenience of having to take responsibility for the consequences. And herein lies the dilemma. The sexual revolution liberated women, or so we think, but did it? Or did it make us more male in our ways? And did the taking of The Pill and the suppression of our natural hormonal cycles, contribute to this embracing of male energy as our own?
There is something quite lovely about a woman in her sacredness, honouring her body and her natural cycles, and being willing to say no to physically sharing that body if and when it does not feel true for her. But how many of us have the self-worth, integrity, even self-love to do that? How many of us feel we have to be available 24/7 to please our men, no matter how we are feeling and what the consequence may be? How many of us feel we have to put our health and even our lives on the line to make sure that we are sexually available, all of the time?
There are fertility awareness methods (4) that can be as reliable as taking The Pill, when used correctly, but how many of us are willing to connect with, pay attention to and honour our bodies in order to be able to use these methods?
Until we as women are willing to take full responsibility for our cycles and our bodies, we will remain at the mercy of drug companies and quick-fix solutions with all the inherent risks they entail. Only when we stop demanding solutions for our problems instead of dealing with the root cause of our ills will it be possible for this supply chain to be broken. It is up to us to start saying no to what is not true for us and honouring what is true, no matter what the consequences.
Women as a whole have lost their connection with their inner sense of stillness and sacredness, the essence of what it is to be a woman. We have given ourselves away and settled for competing with men on their playing field … a field we were never designed to be on … for the essence of a woman is the living stillness within her and devoid of this, we are lost and so are our men.
The key to restoring our inner sense of stillness and sacredness starts with a stop. Just stop the relentless motion we are in, the eternal doing and striving to be someone or something we are not. We are inherently all beautiful, sacred and divine. When we start to reconnect with this innate loveliness, we begin to honour our beautiful bodies and the divine being they were designed to enhouse.
When we begin to live with our inner essence, it is only natural to honour the rhythms and cycles of the body, to live in deep respect of them, to nurture the body and the being it enhouses and to enrich our lives and the lives of all those around us from the living stillness, the eternal sacredness, within.
1. Mike Gaskins, p 69, In the Name of The Pill (available to purchase online)
2. Dr Marissa Weiss p 122, In the Name of The Pill
3. Mike Gaskins, p 198, In the Name of The Pill