Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Science Column: Why the Pill Scares Me

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As a woman fully in support of female equality in every area of life, including sexuality, I want to see the oral contraceptive pill as liberating, beneficial, and healthy. And I used to. However, after stumbling upon some startling internet articles that resulted in a little impromptu research last summer, my perspective on the pill has been thoroughly rattled.

The pill was approved for use as a contraceptive in 1960 just when the feminist movement in America was about to heat up. It was a feminist miracle; for the first time in human history women had reliable, effective control over their own fertility. Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the “mothers” of the pill, went so far as to call it “a precondition for the emancipation of women.” However, by the 1970s feminist feelings for oral contraception had gone from elation to outrage after finding that the pill actually has some pretty hefty health effects. What had momentarily appeared liberating now threatened to be a form of chemical bondage for the female sex. About 150 million women worldwide use forms of the oral contraceptive pill today, and it seems that many remain largely uninformed about what, exactly, they are doing to their bodies via a routine that most consider a healthy, responsible, and normal management of the female reproductive system.

The birth control pill works by introducing synthetic hormones into the body including estrogen and progesterone, which essentially work to convince the body that you are already pregnant and therefore don’t need to ovulate. The result of this use of synthetic hormones is a range of bodily changes that are permanent so long as the woman is on the pill and may include: larger breasts (admittedly not the side effect that deters me), weight gain or loss, reduced or increased acne, nausea, emotional sensitivity and mood swings, irregular bleeding or spotting, breast tenderness, and decreased libido. Basically, by altering your natural hormones the pill throws your body all out of whack. However, a little nausea and acne doesn’t sound so bad when you consider the full potential severity of taking the pill over a number of years. According to the National Cancer Institute, studies indicate that the oral contraceptive pill may increase the risk of developing breast, cervical, and liver cancer. Other studies show that it may, conversely, lower the risk for endometrial and ovarian cancer. According to the Birth Control Law Suit Center (the mere existence of which probably says something), birth control brands such as Yaz, Yasmin, Beyaz, Gianvi, and Ocella, which use drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol, have been known to cause or at least contribute to severe health problems such as blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks. The result: over $1.5 billion in damages to date. I have to admit, I’m a little peeved that none of this was brought to my attention when my doctor nonchalantly wrote me a prescription for the pill to treat my acne when I was sixteen.

Aside from the abundance of jarring health hazards that the pill presents of which the public is largely unaware, it turns out that oral contraception can mess with the female body in ways that are just plain bizarre. Case in point: a Scottish study has found that it may actually influence who we are attracted to. Using a test group of 52 women, the researchers tested their preference for masculine facial features using visual images. After the initial study 18 of the women were put on the pill and the remaining 37 were not; when the same women took the same test three months later it was found that those who had begun using synthetic hormones were now more attracted to men with less-masculinized features than the women who had retained their natural hormones.  Equally strange is a study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution which suggests that the pill also screws with men’s heads; men are normally extra-attracted to women who are at the ovulation stage of their cycle, but since the pill eliminates ovulation it also eliminates this heightened phase of attraction. By messing with our pheromones, the pill can actually lessen our attraction for the genetically-dissimilar mates that we would otherwise be drawn to. This is pretty freaky when you consider just how many women are on the pill. And that, combined with the other insidious bodily changes and its potentially dangerous health effects, is why I decided after four years of pill-popping to keep my hormones au naturale.

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