The Problem with Birth Control

Two studies have come to light in the past year that have made a splash in women’s health.

The first resulted in data that simply showed that depression was higher in women and teen girls taking oral contraceptives than the general population, and suggested a causal link. This caused a stir because oral contraceptives have been having this effect on women since literally the very first trials on the pill, yet was not confirmed by scientists until over 50 years later. Even more upsetting is that no new technology or novel approach was used to draw this conclusion; all of the evidence has been there all along.

Understandably, this can feel both vindicating and upsetting to women who have suffered these side effects. Often doctors neglect to inform patients of potential side effects such as these, and even when it becomes clear the medication is having an adverse effect, many times pharmacists and other healthcare professionals either deny that they exist or insist that they’ll go away. The fortunate patients are able to switch to a different type of pill or find another form of contraception that meets their needs. The rest simply endure, either believing it’s all in their heads, or accepting that the side effects are better than having an unwanted pregnancy.

Now, at last the medical community acknowledges what many women have know for decades. Yet who wouldn’t feel some resentment that it too so long to finally study and admit it?

On the heels of this study comes information from a clinical trial of a birth control injection for men. It should come as no surprise to doctors, researchers, or women who have taken the pill, but many men in the test group experienced the typical side effects, including changes in mood and loss of libido. What did come as a shock to some was the fact that 20 (of a group of 320) participants stated that these side effects were unbearable, concerns for the participants’ safety were raised, and the trial was halted.

Now, if a number of participants refuse to continue, it’s not uncommon for a clinical trial to be suspended. Nor is it a bad thing that researchers took these side effects seriously enough to stop the trial to ensure the safety of the subjects. However, what’s leading to outrage in some is the fact that it appears that when men experience exact same things women have been complaining about for 50 years, researchers may be either indefinitely suspending research and production or possibly even going back to the drawing board.

Let’s be clear – no one, male or female – should have to suffer through these side effects, particularly if they can be avoided. Most women feeling upset about this development aren’t calling for men to suffer. The problem is that this is yet another (and disturbingly modern) example of women’s health being ignored or dismissed while men’s health is not.

It gets even more damning when we examine the history of the development of the pill and see that at the time an injection or pill contraceptive was considered for men, but the idea was scrapped due – in part – to the assumption that men wouldn’t tolerate the side effects, but women (who have always been legally and socially held responsible for the children that often result from sex) would accept them.

We should take note that the original birth control pill, Enovid, contained up to ten times the amount of hormones needed to prevent ovulation, leading to more frequent and more severe side effects. Since then, the pill has been greatly improved by cutting down the dosage. Even so, as our first study shows, many women still experience side effects that can dramatically reduce their quality of life.

So, why are women angry about all this? Because many of us feel that this is just one more example of a problem not being considered a problem until it’s something men have to deal with. This is the result of a patriarchal (note, not “male-dominated” but “patriarchal”) medical establishment within a patriarchal society that dismisses the suffering of women but actively addresses the suffering of men.

What does this mean for the future? There are three possible outcomes of the suspension of the clinical trial for men’s contraceptive injections. The first is that the trial will resume and men will be told that they must deal with these symptoms and potential dangers just as women have (I don’t think that’s very likely). The second is that the trial will never be renewed and this method of contraception will be abandoned. This will clearly lead to anger and resentment as women will still be faced with the often physically unpleasant task of being responsible for contraception. And the third and possibly most inflammatory outcome is that the drug may be re-designed to minimize the side effects in the male injection. Imagine how women who have endure depression and the loss of sex drive for years will feel if it turns out there was a fix for this all along, but no one looked into until men began to suffer as well.

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