Sir Charles Dodds, an expert on the female contraceptive pill during the sixties, once forewarned: “Even if you thoroughly understand the mechanism of a clock, provided it is going well it is very much better to leave it alone. To interfere with it if you do not understand can be disastrous.”
Forty-two years after the commercialisation of the Pill, do we truly understand our bodies any better than we did back then? Scientific advancement would fervently argue that we do, but individually, how many women actually question the effects of hormonal changes that taking the contraceptive pill may cause?
“The Pill… has been considered the greatest invention for women and beyond society’s criticism.”
Holly Grigg-Spall wrote in 2010 about the negative impact that the contraceptive pill had had on her. When she initially decided to take it, she admits, it had been a conscious decision. It was the “done thing”, women were drawn to the fact that it could give you better skin and increase your bra size. What Holly actually experienced was a “despondency” towards life and a time of emotional volatility.
“I had been experiencing intense anxiety and paranoia that over time developed into a constant sense of dread. Explosions of rage came about from my unease, causing arguments with my boyfriend. The smallest disagreement slipped me into a cycle of anger and hopelessness. I felt I was losing my mind.”
What she hadn’t realised then was that the lack of public criticism had stemmed from the power of pharmaceutical companies producing the Pill to ensure lawsuits never went to trial.
In light of her experiences it is easy to understand Holly’s adamant conviction that we need to see the benefits of regular ovulation. Statistics show that natural ovulation is actually very beneficial for women, and controlling this can have negative side effects, the most severe being blood clots and strokes. Moreover, while the cost-risk benefit for a sexually active teenage girl arguably raises the desirability of the Pill over unwanted pregnancy, Dr Jerilynn Prior, a leading endocrinologist from Vancouver, warns that taking the Pill so young disrupts the natural development of a girl’s menstrual cycle.
“Because all forms of hormonal contraception are designed to disturb the brain control of ovulation, and this system needs to grow up in teenagers, we have concerns about anything disrupting that delicate and important process. Also current “low-dose” pills are very likely to fail as contraception if one or more pills are missed… In addition, recent information is confirming an earlier study showing that young women using the Pill don’t gain bone normally.”
The fact that preventing pregnancy through hormonal control in young girls is of paramount importance, Holly argued, illustrates two concerning expectations of our society today: repressing natural ovulation is a sign of good health in young women, and the stigma of “unwanted” pregnancies is laden with the expectations that society places on the modern woman.
She advocates a more natural way of controlling fertility, mapping our cycles and using barrier methods, such as condoms and femidoms along with spermicides in order to prevent pregnancy. But in a society based on efficiency and practicality, the Pill as an institutionalised form of contraception is hard to let go. “There’s no doubt that it’s addictive, and many women suffer withdrawal-like symptoms coming off of it,” Holly pointed out. Still, these stereotypically hippy alternatives she suggests are perhaps harder to promote. Some women can track their cycle by lunar phases, but is cycle-mapping unreliable? According to Holly, “ovulating tracking is pure science, you can even use an app to track your ovulation, and it is very precise. For myself, a little bit of knowledge went along way.”
Surely such a method, no matter how much science is involved, still risks more imprecision than taking the Pill? Holly believes it’s a just a process of re-education away from hormonal substitutes. “It is so worrying that the Pill is based on the formula of one-size-fits-all,” Holly argued. On closer thought, when you consider that a thirty year-old weighing 9 stone could be on the same dosage of oestrogen as a fourteen year-old at 7 stone, the implications for the fourteen year-old would be potentially far worse.
Holly also drew attention to the recent decision by France’s Ministry of Health to ban the sale of Diane-35 (known as Dianette in the UK) after four deaths and 116 women suffering from blood clots, which raised the risk factor of consumption of this pill beyond levels that can allow for responsible sales.
For Holly, life without the Pill really isn’t very “hippy” at all. In a society increasingly obsessed with ideas of healthy living, chemical-free food production, reduced carbon footprint and increased awareness of our daily impact on the environment, why is consumption of the contraceptive pill still largely unquestioned, when the effects it has on our hormones could be worryingly significant?
The buzzwords here are endocrine (hormone) disruptors. “More and more of us are worried about chemicals in everyday products – and endocrine disruptors in plastics, deodorants and cleaning products, but that is the main role of the Pill – oestrogen acts as an endocrine disruptor.” Evidently there are differing degrees of harm that come from endocrine disruptors; contact with pesticides would of course have a worse effect on your health than consumption of the Pill, but the idea that we find one source of endocrine disruptors acceptable and not another is interesting.
“It is worrying that the Pill is based on the formula of one-size-fits-all.”
Historically, the widespread prescription of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic oestrogen to prevent miscarriages, to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s led to long term negative health effects, such as unusual rates of vaginal cancers in teenage girls, birth defects of the uterus and ovaries and immune suppression.
Holly sees taking the Pill is subjugating your body to a sickness. Not only does it alter your metabolism, resulting in difference in vitamin absorption, but it is also largely linked to a reduction in libido, and can cause painful sex and vaginal bleeding.
Here, Holly believes, lies the dreaded bittersweet dilemma – women were encouraged to take the Pill to regulate their hormones, and in a sense to enable themselves to become more masculine by locking away discussion of menstruation behind a blindfold of fake hormones.
“Prior to the 1950’s women couldn’t do a lot of the same things because of periods. They were considered less productive in the work place; women were seen as incapacitated. The Pill changed society’s perception of women, in that they could have careers, and be seen as “more like men”; a lot of women wanted that. Women had to choose between fitting in or changing society.”
But this can’t be seen as wholly negative if the Pill in many ways has allowed for women by choice to compete more successfully in male-dominated sectors of work? Holly disagrees, in that she believes the Pill illustrates a compromise in order to make the best way in a man’s world. “The Pill as the liberating tool of the last half a century has been considered the greatest invention for women and beyond society’s criticism.”
As Holly points out, the Pill isn’t always as reliable a contraceptive as people expect. It relies on being taken at the same time each day, and being sick or having an upset stomach can flush the Pill taken that day from your system. Additionally, some antibiotics render the Pill ineffective. Women therefore need to be encouraged to look to other ways of preventing pregnancies.
This comes with re-educating women with the obvious fact that periods are natural. “We should come to expect menstrual cycle checks with our doctors as we should expect blood pressure checks.”
Charles Dodd’s concerns are couched in the context of a more sexually conservative time. Yet after half a decade of relying on the contraceptive pill as a popular means of contraception, there are those like Holly who are increasingly coming to question whether this is the best option for women in the 21st Century. “We still don’t understand our bodies. Really we should all be asking ourselves what do you feel like naturally?”