It’s almost like a MeToo moment, the way women around the world are raising their voice about the Pill and similar contraceptives. In America, in France, in Germany, books are coming out with titles like Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control; J’arette la pilule (I’m stopping the pill); and now Freiheit von der Pille (Freedom from the pill). In November Vogue UK ran a story on how Millennials are rejecting the pill.
These writers cite a wide range of side effects, from weight gain and irritability to loss of libido and a diminished sense of wellbeing. This week they have been reminded – if they were ever informed – of a more serious reason: a large Danish study has found that hormonal contraception increases the risk of breast cancer by an overall 20 percent.
Predictably, spokespersons for the birth control medical-industrial complex, while acknowledging the bad news, are adding “buts” to discourage women from chucking their pills in the trash can. “But” hormonal contraceptives are for many women “among the most safe, effective and accessible options available,” officials of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told the New York Times. “Nothing is risk-free,” shrugged the senior author of the new study, Dr Øjvind Lidegaard.
The link between the pill and breast cancer is old news, but it has always been brushed off as minimal compared to the benefits of not getting pregnant. How many women have been warned of this risk – and others, including cervical cancer and blood clots — by their doctor when handed a script for the pill or a hormonal IUD?
As with workplace sexual harassment, for decades a code of silence has applied to a technology that must not be criticised because that would undermine women’s liberation – especially their very useful presence in the workforce.
But, even without being fully informed of the risks, women who have reached their late twenties amid movements for environmental protection and natural products can see the contradiction in medicating themselves with synthetic hormones when they are not even sick, to prevent a possible conception.
Considering how hard it is for a girl to find even a decent date, isn’t the contraceptive gig as much of a male power trip as what’s been going on in Hollywood and the corporate world? Isn’t it all about having women at your beck and call? At the risk not only of their dignity but in some cases of their very lives?
The birth control scientists hoped they were doing better with a new generation of hormonal concoctions, but the risk shown by the Danish study is similar in magnitude to the heightened risks associated with birth control pills used in the 1980s and earlier. Huge disappointment all round.
And this is not just another study. It is a prospective study that followed 1.8 million Danish women for more than a decade – that is, every woman of childbearing age on the national prescription and cancer registries (one of the benefits of socialised medicine is that you can get lots of lovely data). The New York Times reports:
“The new paper estimated that for every 100,000 women, hormone contraceptive use causes an additional 13 breast cancer cases a year. That is, for every 100,000 women using hormonal birth control, there are 68 cases of breast cancer annually, compared with 55 cases a year among nonusers.”
An oncologist, Dr Marisa Weiss, comments:
“It’s small but it’s measurable, and if you add up all the millions of women taking the pill, it is a significant public health concern,” Dr. Weiss added.
Nearly 10 million American women use oral contraceptives (1.5 million for reasons other than birth control) and increasing numbers use other hormonal methods. That would mean, using the Danish researchers’ estimate, at least 6,800 cases of breast cancer a year in the US linked to contraceptive use.
And the numbers are still coming in, because risk increases with age, as well as length of use (indicating a causal relationship), and educated women, who typically delay childbearing until marriage, yet tend to marry for the first time in their late twenties, could easily have 10 years of non-stop contraception.
Women who stayed on hormones for 10 or more years experienced a 38 percent increase in their relative risk of developing breast cancer, compared with nonusers. By contrast, there was no increased risk for breast cancer seen in women who used hormones for less than one year.
Even after five years an increased cancer risk persisted after women stopped using hormonal birth control, IUDs releasing progestin increased the risk to 21 percent.
So, what to do? Anything but abandon medical technology, according to the experts consulted by the Times. Especially if you are a young woman. Dr Lidegaard advised doctors to “take time to discuss the pros and cons of different types of contraception with their patients, and … be frank about the potential risks, suggesting women reassess hormone use as they age.”
Dr Weiss suggests that older women might try methods like a diaphragm or non-hormonal IUD, or condoms. “It’s not like you don’t have a choice,” she said.
The one choice no-one mentioned was fertility based awareness (natural family planning) and we know why. The male, technological approach that dominates the field of so-called family planning is based on a distrust of women and a desire to control their collective fertility for other ends, including making lots of money from selling them contraceptives.
It’s quite like the Weinstein, Lauer, Franken – oh yes, and Trump – approach to women’s sexuality, really. The fact that some women have bought into the power model does not make it any less masculine and controlling.
But young women are beginning to see through this game and ask why they should medicate their healthy bodies, feel bad and risk real harm just because their mothers obediently swallowed their pills. The latest findings about hormonal contraception can only encourage them.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.