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Blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks: the serious negative side effects of hormonal contraceptives are undeniable.
Last month saw the release of a new study that makes the connection, not for the first time, between newer birth control pills and the risk of serious injury or death. Researchers from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom revealed that a woman using a brand of oral contraceptive with a more recently created formulation has 4 times the risk of developing a blood clot when compared to a woman who is not taking any brand of birth control pills. These pills contain newer synthetic progestins with the names drospirenone, desogestrel, gestodene, and cyproterone. Women using older formulations with older progestins still have a risk that is 2.5 times the risk of non-users. Even when the researchers took into account other contributing factors such as obesity and smoking, the connection was still stark.
New formulations of the birth control pill are created partly in response to the side effects experienced with older types, but also partly so that new patents can be purchased, allowing for the higher profits of bringing "new," "improved," and often more expensive products, to the market. This study may be new evidence, but it's not exactly "news". The makers of the drospirenone-containing Yaz and Yasmin brands, which were the top selling oral contraceptives for some time, have had to settle thousands of cases of women injured or killed by deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, strokes and heart attacks out of court, with a cost of $1.7 billion dollars.
Those in the media that report these findings are often accused of scare mongering. Women are encouraged to keep taking the pills, consult with their doctor, and then ask about switching brands to lower, but not remove, the risk. These days we also see the suggestion that women should instead use the hormonal IUD device, implant or the shot. However, all of these other delivery systems hold their own set of side effects and risks. The blood clot risk might not be as high, but the danger to a woman's health and wellbeing does not disappear when we replace one hormonal contraceptive with another.
It is oft repeated that, when compared to pregnancy, the risk of developing a blood clot from any birth control pill is low. It's become something of a mantra. In fact, a comparison between the risk during pregnancy and that produced by taking Yaz and Yasmin was utilized during a FDA appraisal, effectively ensuring the drugs would remain available.
This comparison has developed a dangerous dichotomy that is, in itself, a form of scare mongering. It suggests that women only have a choice between hormonal contraceptives or an unplanned pregnancy. This can make women feel trapped and confused. It also ensures that, if they are rightfully concerned about the impact of hormonal contraceptives and stop using their birth control pills, they do not know how to prevent pregnancy effectively without it and are given little support to do so. This lack of education on alternatives does indeed leave them wide open to experiencing an unwanted pregnancy. Dismissing non-hormonal options for pregnancy prevention puts women in danger. The dangerous dichotomy and not the discussion of serious risks is the cause of this situation.
Women need both access to and awareness of more non-hormonal female-controlled options such as the diaphragm and cervical cap. They also need the education in body literacy via Fertility Awareness Based Methods that can give them the confidence to understand and manage their own fertility. Without this support women are scared into staying on hormonal contraceptives that put them at risk and cause them unwanted side effects. The women who become Pill refugees are abandoned. Those that return to their doctor find they're only offered more hormonal options that give them less control and further side effects. It's time for us to break this cycle.
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