When 24-year-old Erika Langhart—talented, beautiful, bound for law school—died on Thanksgiving Day 2011, she became one of thousands of suspected victims of the birth-control device NuvaRing. Elite army athlete Megan Henry, who survived rampant blood clots in her 20s, is another. With major suits against NuvaRing’s manufacturer, Merck, headed for trial, Marie Brenner asks why, despite evidence of serious risk, a potentially lethal contraceptive remains on the market.

This is the introduction to an expose of an hormonal contraceptive device in the latest edition of Vanity Fair. Yes, Vanity Fair, a leading US women’s magazine that would be a staunch advocate of easily accessible birth control, but that also recognises a threat to women’s health and lives when it sees one.

Tha long article begins with the story of Erika Langhart, a young professional from working in Washington where she lived with her boyfriend. Three days before she was due to fly home to Colorado for Thanksgiving in 2011 she collapsed, and died on Thanksgiving day. To her mother, Karen, the cause was tragically plain:

On the program for her daughter’s memorial service, Karen stated, “Cause of Passing: Massive, Double Pulmonary Embolism—a direct result of the NuvaRing.” She had entered, she told [Marie Brenner], “another phase of life. How I wish I could change places with my daughter.” Then her voice broke. “I am living every parent’s nightmare.” Thanksgiving 2011 was for Karen the start of the mission that now obsesses her. “I want to warn every mother and every daughter: do not use the product that killed my child.”

Next is the experience of young athlete Megan Henry, a friend of Erika Langhart at college, who was stricken last year by blood clots in the lungs after only ten days using NuvaRing – her first experience of contraception. Her mother is also crusading against the device, which releases the third generation progestin desogestrel inside the vagina. It is currently marketed by Merck and earned the company $623 million in 2012. Along with other hormonal contraceptives it comes under “reproductive healthcare” in President Obama’s new health scheme and has to be fully funded in insurance plans.

Marie Brenner, whose own daughter was using it, continues:

As Karen Langhart began her research, she studied lawsuits previously filed against Johnson & Johnson’s patch contraceptive, Ortho Evra, and Bayer’s popular oral contraceptives, Yasmin and Yaz. Her immediate focus became the risks of blood clots from birth-control drugs. While Erika was on life support, Karen spent three days in the I.C.U. with nurses, doctors, and neurosurgeons. “Each and every one of them had personal and professional stories to tell about birth control and pulmonary embolisms,” she told me.

Brenner has researched the drug thoroughly to establish whether it has a higher risk of blood clots than other hormonal contraceptives (it has, compared to at least some others), its trialling, labelling, advertising and other issues. If you want to understand a bit about how the birth control market works — largely in the manufacturer’s interests, and employing thousands of lawyers — it is worth reading Brenner’s detailed report.

What comes through, however, is the power of Big Pharma in a culture which accepts that young adults (and older ones) will live together whether married or not, whether ready for children or not, and that the women will “protect” themselves from pregnancy by swallowing/wearing whatever their doctors and the flashy TV ads (in the USA, anyway) say is the latest cool thing. Trying to keep the drug companies and government honest in respect to women’s reproductive health will always be a rearguard action, because the immediate needs created by a warped sexual culture will always come first.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet