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The Pill is Turning 50: Has it Lived Up to its Reputation?

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We can all agree that the pill has changed the course of reproductive justice, but Laura Eldridge encourages us to take a more critical look at the pill and its possible limitations.

Oral contraceptives have allowed women to take more control over their sexual health and to planned their lives with more assurance. The pill has been shown to do more than just prevent unintended pregnancies: studies have claimed that the pill does everything from treating severe menstrual pain and acne to decreasing urinary incontinence, preventing bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory diseases. Sometimes the pill is painted as a wonder drug - it's over 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when taken correctly and it can reduce many symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.

Eldridge's article challenges our opinion of the pill slightly, by reminding us of its history and its consequences. Hormone based drugs still show risks among women, including mood swings and a crushed libido to strokes and heart attacks caused by blood clots. The actual creation of the pill was a result of years of testing on poor women, and part of the need for the pill did not come from preventing pregnancy overall, but for population control among poor communities of color. Eldridge wrote, "The pill was able to be born because of deep social and economic injustices, not solely as a response to them. The pill trials were conducted on poor women in Puerto Rico, in part because they had fewer legal protections against some of the dangers of new drug trials."

Issues of racism and sexism emerged from the creation and use of the first pill, as female doctors were often scoffed at for their concerns about possible side effects, and as the mission of the pill became so much about keeping disadvantaged populations from procreating. Barbara Seaman wrote "The Doctors' Case Against the Pill" which documented the side effects women faced as a result of taking the pill, shedding light on the little information that was provided to these women from drug companies.

Things are different today: the hormone dose in pills has reduced significantly, and there are yards of warning label attached to each form of oral contraceptive. Perhaps most moving of all, Eldridge reminds us that these changes are "due to the tireless efforts of the women's health movement."

Part of looking back and seeing how far we've come is, indeed, also about seeing how far there is to go. This month especially, we need to consider how much work still needs to be done to provide adequate and accurate sexual health resources for all communities, how more innovative birth control methods must continue to be created for women AND MEN, and that the stigma around the right not to have a child must still be eradicated.

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EmpowHER Guest

I think you need to look more into the creation and original purpose of the pill. According to the book "What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell (pg 101-125), the original purpose of the pill was to regulate women's menstrual cycles so that they could use the rhythm method. The rhythm method is when sex is limited to "safe" times of the month (when a woman is not ovulating), and since irregular women's "safe" time varied from month to month they could not use this method of birth control (it was also the only method the Catholic Church approved of) and the pill regulated these women so that they could begin to use the rhythm method.

May 25, 2010 - 10:54pm
EmpowHER Guest

Thanks Susan for correcting and reiterating! The pill can be 98-99% effective. While I never gave into its "wonder" abilities - I take it solely to prevent pregnancies - I do know from just as many women as the first responder that these wonder abilities have happened for them.

I do agree that more research needs to go into hormonal health to find out exactly why side effects do occur and more education for women who are on the pill. That way when these side effects do occur, they are not ignored.

It would be nice if the pill was free! However since we're talking about a right to decide to get pregnant or not to get pregnant, I must disagree about taxpayers paying for any contraceptives. I do agree that the education about the availability of contraceptives and their applicable side effects should be free. Keep in mind that in places where the pill is free to a certain degree, it is due to racist and sexist motivations on the legislation and taxpayers' part.

April 19, 2010 - 9:00am
EmpowHER Guest

I have not been spared pregnency by using birth control pills. I also got yeast infections that were enough to make my skin numb and give me immune system problems my whole life. I learned from a study that the pill has as much as a 60% failure rate for overweight women (most of us, hello) and I have met others who had children even though they took their pills as directed. The pill still needs SUBSTANTIAL improvement, and it is time we recognized this and directed more research toward it.

April 1, 2010 - 11:15am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

The pill not working for 60% of women does sound like an astounding statistic.. until you say that it is for women who are overweight. This is another medical issue in and of itself. It is an issue that is almost entirely self induced and leads to a poor quality of life as well as a shorter one. Why not hop onto the treadmill and drink less soda ? Your life will improve and birth control will work for you! It is that simple.

June 22, 2010 - 8:53am
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