A new report suggests that the most common form of birth control for American women has a strong link to glaucoma. The research shows three years of using oral contraception may double a woman’s risks for the condition, adding fuel to the ongoing debate over whether women should ditch the pill.
Researchers from three universities — Duke University, University of California, San Francisco, and China’s Third Affiliate Hospital of Nanchang University — examined 3,400 women age 40 and older who had been on the pill for three years or longer. The sample size is relatively small, and the study only established correlation, not causation. But the data did show that these women had twice the risk of developing glaucoma than women who had taken oral contraception for three years or less.
The news is getting a lot of attention, in no small part due to the fact that most American women have been on the pill at some point or another in their sexual lives; the Guttmacher Institute reports that four out of five sexually experienced women have taken birth control pills. And the latest study is not the first to suggest some long-term unwanted health effects from oral contraception.
There’s a cornucopia of sometimes conflicting data about the effects of birth control pills. The Mayo Clinic says, "Using birth control pills for longer periods of time increases your risk of some cancers, such as cervical cancer and liver cancer." Blood pressure and cholesterol can also increase when on the pill. At the same time, the pill has also been shown to "decrease your risk of other types of cancer, including ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer."
But it’s not just the "heavy hitters" of health risks that are causing more women to question the pill. Weight gain, mood swings, and other more innocuous but immediately irritating factors have become part of the conversation.
In her recent and controversial book Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, Holly Grigg-Spall went so far as to suggest that birth control pills are essentially part of a patriarchal attempt to hook women by messing with their natural state of hormones.
While her confusing statements and emphasis on a vague concept of "femininity" earned her criticism, more women, especially young women, have been extolling the benefits of not being on the pill. They have even started championing the rhythm method and pulling out.
Ann Friedman at New York writes that many women "who buy organic kale and all-natural cleaning products can’t quite get down with taking synthetic hormones every day." Moreover, technology can help make pulling out a viable method, thanks to period-tracker apps that make charting when a woman is most fertile pretty easy. She also cites a 2009 study showing that typical withdrawal method use is only slightly more likely to end up in pregnancy than typical condom use (18 percent versus 17 percent).
Furthermore, once-stigmatized methods are becoming more popular. Intrauterine devices (IUDs) scared off American women for many years after the 1970s faulty launch of the Dalkon Shield resulted in infertility and fatalities. But Kat Stoeffel at New York notes that in 2002 just 2 percent of women had IUDs, and now it’s 10 percent. And Allison Bond at Reuters says more studies on the limited negative side effects of these devices will "open the door to making implants and IUDs go-to birth control methods for all women who want them."
So keeping all that in mind, is it time to ditch the pill? For an increasing number of women, the data seems to suggest there are enough methods out there that could be better for them, a fact that has too often been forgotten. "We frame access to hormonal contraception as a hard won right for women — and it is — but neglect to represent the idea that it has its consequences," writes Kelly Bourdet at Vice.
This most recent study is hardly cause alone for women to start throwing out their birth control pills. But it’s certainly giving women — and men — incentives to look beyond the pill when it comes to contraception.