Snakeoil Salesmanship: The Dangerous Politicization of Birth Control



While chaperoning for an exchange program in Europe this summer and collecting specimens for my erratically accumulated German vocabulary, I learned that the German word for oral contraception was not some polite euphemism like “the Pill”, but rather antibabypille. I find the hilariously literal vocabulary of German strangely endearing, and this example struck me as the perfect exemplar of Teutonic directness. No Puritanical primness here. No delusions of the medication’s primary intention; this is the pill to take when you want no babies.

Several days later, I spoke with a biology teacher at the local gymnasium – gymnasiums are German public college prep schools with no religious affiliations – who surprised me by saying how much he was looking forward to teaching his next sex education class (confirming yet another stereotype that Germans really are comfortably matter-of-fact about sex). Always curious about different cultural attitudes, I asked what sorts of topics he covered. He, a former med student, responded with, “The medical risk factors of various birth control methods.” Surprised, I explained that that approach would most likely get you pegged as a religious and/or political nut in the U.S. Surprised in turn, he responded with, “Why? People should be aware.” And his question made me wonder, why indeed?

These two examples of the German attitude toward birth control in no way touch the debate of whether birth control is a right, wrong, or neutral action, nor does it approach the political discussion of whether forcing employers to provide birth control through their insurance is constitutional or not. It simply provides a contrast between the factual directness in one nation over the dangerous politicization of another.  I will also skip the birth control morality debate, because if women want to use birth control, it is their choice. But I do want to talk about how the U.S. politicization on the topic is currently fostering a dangerous ignorance.

In the current U.S. birth control debate, there are two primary claims made to argue for birth control to be covered by insurance:

  1. Birth control gives women power over their reproductive health.
  2. Moving away from the primary intention of the Antibabypille, people cite the non-contraceptive benefits oral contraceptives offer for PCOS, endometriosis, cramps, and acne.

In answer to the first, while offering assistance when a woman wishes not to reproduce, birth control carries the risk of reducing a woman’s control over her reproductive health if birth control contributes to rendering her infertile. While the side effect of infertility is usually only temporary, it is often a stressful and potentially heartbreaking ordeal for a woman ready for a child, but it is frequently glossed over or outright ignored in discussions about women’s reproductive health.

In answer to the second: oral contraceptives certainly are prescribed by some doctors for PCOS, endometriosis, menstrual cramps, and acne. While it is true that progesterone-estrogen oral contraceptives may alleviate many of the symptoms from these afflictions, I am noticing a trend in social media that treats oral contraceptives as magical cure-alls for various lady problems with no significant risk factors. If this were true, it would seem unethical, cruel, and silly to prevent these wunder-pills from solving these medical conditions, right? The truth is that oral contraceptives have such serious potential risk factors that using them for something like acne seems rather like using a machine gun to kill a mosquito.

If women know the risks, and chose to use oral contraceptives regardless, that is, of course, their prerogative, but I am continually amazed at how many women have no idea of the significant risks involved.  Start by taking a look at the side effects for progesteron-estrogen oral contraceptives listed on the National Library of Medicine website.  The American Cancer Society uses a system to classify carcinogens.  The groups from least to greatest risk are as follows: probably not, unclassifiable, possibly, probably, and known carcinogens. That last and most serious group, Group 1 carcinogens, has just over 100 classified as “known carcinogens,” or definitely carcinogenic to humans. Such things as tobacco, asbestos, arsenic, plutonium, formaldehyde, ultraviolet radiation, and progesteron-estrogen oral contraceptives make the short list for Group 1 carcinogens.  Planned Parenthood’s response to the scientific studies is as follows: “You may have heard claims linking the pill to breast cancer. The most recent medical literature suggests that the pill has little, if any, effect on the risk of developing breast cancer.”  One, I think scientific research conducted by The International Agency for Research on Cancer ethically deserves more acknowledgement than the gossipy sounding “claims” cited by Planned Parenthood; and two why is the “recent medical literature” that contradicts decades of cancer research not cited or linked?

This is similar to the NuvaRing scandal. NuvaRing, an alternative to oral contraception, has a substantially greater risk than most other birth control methods for life-threatening side effects like pulmonary embolisms and blood clots. These risks have been covered in Vanity Fair and the Huffington Post article “Side Effects May Include Death” yet the Planned Parenthood website — reading more like an ad campaign than an objective third party — describes NuvaRing with the same copied and pasted reassurance of “safe, effective, and convenient” that it uses for all methods.  There is clearly a wide divide between the available medical evidence and our collective social awareness.

Knowing the carcinogenic effects of UV rays does not prevent people from ever sunbathing, but it does educate people on the risks so that they can make calculated decisions. Defend the morality and health efficacy of birth control by all means, but to refuse to acknowledge the proven risk factors of hormonal medications in order to win a politically charged debate is both ludicrous and unethical. Transparency about the risk factors involved in contraceptives would not cause the birth control industry to collapse, but women would certainly be better informed and more empowered in making choices for their health.

Stop the unethical politicization of birth control. Women’s health is not a pawn in a game. Knowledge is what empowers women, not snake oil salesmanship and false promises.


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