Products of Con(tra)ception

Hormonal Birth Control Was Ill-Conceived from the Start

On the morning of September 26, 2018, twenty-year-old Alexandra (Alex) Williams collapsed in the driveway of her parents’ home in Durham, North Carolina. She was taken by ambulance to Duke University Medical Center, where some thirty doctors and nurses tried to revive her. Late that night, doctors told her parents they had done everything they could, but Alex showed no signs of responding. She died the following evening after being removed from life support.

Alex had been a healthy, active college student whose only prior illness had been strep throat when she was four. Her sudden demise, seemingly out of nowhere, was a complete mystery. Her body was in such bad shape that none of her organs or tissues were suitable for donation, not even her eyes.

Five days later, preliminary autopsy results revealed that she’d had blood clots in both lungs. Her father, Anthony, did a quick internet search on “blood clots young woman death” and discovered his daughter was not the only young woman who’d met with such a fate. “I read about lovely, vibrant, intelligent, and otherwise healthy young women who died suddenly and unexpectedly,” he wrote on “The common link in all of these deaths was the use of birth control.”

It turned out that Alex had visited a Planned Parenthood clinic earlier that year and had received a prescription for Levora, a hormonal contraceptive that has been marketed as one of the “safer” birth control pills. After starting it, she had developed chronic back pain and a lung infection and had visited urgent care and even the ER once. But no one suspected any connection with the new pills she’d been taking.

 The million-dollar question that should be asked is, Why not? The link between the Pill and blood clots has been known for more than fifty years.

Risky from the Start

According to Mike Gaskins, who began researching problems with hormonal contraceptives after reading the patient information booklet that came with his wife’s prescription, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) began warning against synthetic estrogens in the 1940s. Nonetheless, the FDA approved the Pill in 1960. Briefly, here are just a few of the problems that turned up within the first decade of general use:

Depression: A study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry in 1969 reported “a definite association between oral contraceptives and depressive symptomatology.” In Pregnant or Dead? The Pill in New Perspective (1969), Harold Williams, a medical doctor and practicing attorney, compared suicide statistics for the year 1967 with those of 1961. According to his data, rates of female suicide had risen dramatically during those years compared with rates among their male counterparts. Suicides among young women aged 15–24 had nearly doubled.

Pulmonary embolism and strokes: In 1968, the British Medical Journal published the results of a mortality study that found a “strong relation between the use of oral contraceptives and death from pulmonary embolism or cerebral thrombosis in the absence of predisposing conditions.” To be clear, a pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in a lung, and a cerebral thrombosis is a blood clot in the brain. Both can be fatal.

Green Plasma: In a bizarre chapter of medical history, clinicians in the 1960s saw a wave of mysterious green plasma donations coming from young women. The source of the color turned out to be an overabundance of a copper-carrying protein called ceruloplasmin. Researchers investigating the mystery noted that estrogen increases copper retention and consequently elevates ceruloplasmin levels. They identified fifteen donors with elevated ceruloplasmin and found that all of them had green plasma, and all had been taking oral contraceptives. At some point, blood banks stopped accepting the green plasma, but ironically, one research team has since suggested reintroducing it for use in critically injured and bleeding patients. Why? Because of its “superior hemostatic properties.” In other words, it clots more easily.

The Nelson Hearings

After tracing some of her own problematic symptoms to the Pill and combining her concerns with those expressed by her psychiatrist husband, Barbara Seaman published The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill in 1969. She sent a copy to Senator Gaylord Nelson, and the following year, Nelson chaired Senate hearings with the goal of addressing two questions: (1) Had the Pill been proven safe? and (2) Were women being given sufficient information about possible harmful side effects?

It would be an understatement to say that the Nelson hearings were controversial. At first, feminists took them as a male-dominated attack on their equality and sexual liberty. But as the hearings progressed and they heard physicians link the Pill to a veritable panoply of maladies, their protests shifted to legitimate anger as they realized they had been sold a “safe and effective” drug that had not been adequately tested. Worse, even when serious side effects had become known, they had not been informed about them. It didn’t help that some Pill apologists excused sub-par informed consent on the grounds that women wouldn’t understand the details, or if they did, they might be induced to complain more. One physician described the Pill as “an internal pollution by chemicals” and recommended a “moratorium on all birth control pills for some 5 years.”

Busybodies & “Benefits”

The short answer to both of Senator Nelson’s two questions was a resounding no. But there was another, arguably even more egregious breach of trust on the part of government regulators. Dr. Roy Hertz, who had chaired an FDA advisory committee addressing cancer and the Pill, admitted that the link between synthetic estrogen and cancer had been established at the time of FDA approval. In fact, estrogen had been banned from use in poultry processing in the 1950s because it was known to cause cancer in chickens. “[Estrogens] are to breast cancer what fertilizer is to the wheat crop,” he said, in a headline-inducing quote.

But he went on to explain why the Pill had gained FDA approval anyway, and here is where a dark underside to the then-unfolding story of the Pill came to light. The standard phrase among Pill advocates said that its benefits outweighed the risks. But the nature of the “benefit” had not been publicly disclosed prior to the Nelson hearings. The rationale was most bluntly summed up by Dr. John McCain (not the Senator), when he said, “The population explosion is of overwhelming worldwide importance. It threatens the very foundations of national existence. Unless the explosion is moderated, radical methods of population control, rather than family planning, may be required.”

So there it was. The benefits held to justify serious health risks associated with Pill consumption had to do with government bureaucrats prioritizing population politics over women’s health. In quintessential Orwellian logic, here, “reproductive health” meant a reduction in reproduction.

A Bill of Ills

The Pill has been linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, suicide, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, uterine fibroids, polycystic ovarian syndrome, arthritis, migraines, hair loss, sterility, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, abnormal thyroid and liver function, and deleterious effects on metabolism, skin, vision, weight, bone density, and libido.

Despite all this, an estimated 150 million women take it regularly, worldwide. Many will take or have been taking it for decades, as it is regularly prescribed for everything from acne to mood and menses regulation. If feminists really want to talk about reproductive health for women, addressing the manifold problems with the Pill would be a good place to start.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #63, Winter 2022 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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