Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Is the birth control pill a cancer vaccine?

March 11th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

I’d given up reading the comments on online articles for the good of my mental health when a small slip last week steeled my resolve. In response to an article exploring the arguments made by “birth control truthers” a concerned father decided to have his say, taking the defensive arguments put forward by those in opposition to these “truthers” to their only logical conclusion:

“Perhaps we should market contraceptive pills as hormonal supplements to reduce cancer risk instead of as “contraception”? After all, it is only in modern times that women have hundreds of menstrual cycles throughout their lives. Even up until 1800 it was common for women to be either pregnant or lactating throughout much of their short lives.

The body simply wasn’t built to handle so many menstrual cycles, which raises the risk for cancer.

Who could argue with taking supplements to prevent cancer?

This may sound strange, but I am seriously considering putting my 11 year-old daughter on the pill (with no placebo) just for the health benefits. I just have to convince my wife first who is a little shocked by the idea…”

I cannot count how many times I have heard that the birth control pill “prevents cancer” – specifically “preventing” ovarian and endometrial cancer.  In the last few months I have seen references to this benefit explained less and less so as a “lowered risk” and more and more so as a “preventative” action.  I think this is significant as the word “prevent” suggests that the pill guarantees you will not get these forms of cancer. And yet, to remark that the pill is counted as a carcinogenic substance by WHO – due on the increased the risk of breast and cervical cancers – will get you tagged as a “truther.”

What is interesting, of course, is that despite the “cancer protecting” benefits of pregnancy, and early pregnancy at that, we do not see women encouraged to get pregnant in order to lower their risk of ovarian cancer.  Criticism of child-free women does not generally include comments about their lax attitude towards their own health. The risk goes down further with every pregnancy and further still with breast feeding, especially breast feeding for a long period of time after birth. Women who have children young, and multiple children, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who have no children or children after 30. Yet we see more talk of women having “too many” children at an age that is “too young” – in fact I was contacted via Twitter by someone who read this piece and who saw, in the comments, that one woman who uses natural family planning admitted to both liking the method and having 14 children. This admission disgusted the person who contacted me, even when I pointed out that it seemed the woman had very much chosen to have those 14 children.

It seems the people who are advocating prescription of the pill for cancer prevention purposes are not advocating women have children earlier, more children, or consider breast feeding for the good of their own health – in fact two of the loudest critics of my “birth control truther” book are vehemently against pregnancy and breast feeding being part of women’s lives (Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein). The risks of the pill are frequently compared to the health risks associated with pregnancy and child birth,  but we don’t often hear women say they are choosing to not have children to avoid putting their health at risk for nine or so months.

Which leads me to this article in the LA Times that suggested nuns should also be on the birth control pill for its cancer-protecting abilities:

“And are the pills really unnatural? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had their babies four or five years apart, because of long intervals of breastfeeding. As a result of that and their shorter life spans, they had as few as 40 menstrual cycles in a lifetime, while a modern woman can have 400. Though we can’t claim that today’s pills are perfect, their use is certainly less unnatural than enduring the hormone turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles.

Food. Fashion. Blood?

January 10th, 2014 by Laura Wershler

A month ago I was musing about what it might be like to blog about fun stuff like food, fashion or travel – you know, topics not quite so “fraught” as the menstrual cycle. Sometimes it feels like just so much work sharing facts and opinions about why body literacy matters, why knowing how our cycles work and how ovulation impacts our health can lead us into meaningful, self-determined relationship with our bodies and ourselves.

But in the days leading up to Christmas, I was reminded by two young women, both of whom I’ve known since they were babies, daughters of friends, one in her late 20s, the other in her early 30s, why I do what I do.

Photo by Laura Wershler

The younger had contacted me last September, at the suggestion of her mother, with questions about switching birth control methods. She was fed up with the Pill, wanted to quit, was considering the Mirena IUD, told me about her history with ovarian cysts, irregular cycles. In a stable relationship, she hadn’t thought much about children. We talked about options. I assured her there were effective non-hormonal methods she could use, that by doing so she could assess her fertility, get her cycle functioning normally before making a decision about the Mirena. I sent her information about treatment – not involving hormonal contraceptives – for ovarian cysts; I asked a medical colleague questions on her behalf. She was thankful, emailing me that she had “some heavy thinking to do, including my actual timeline for children.”

I hoped to see her at her family’s annual Christmas party. We greeted each other briefly when I arrived, but not until the house was teeming with guests did we have the chance to talk privately amidst the holiday din. She told me she’d stopped the Pill three months before, could hardly believe how much better she felt, even though she’d yet to have a period. She thanked me, again, for validating her desire to quit the Pill. It so happened she had an appointment the next day with her family doctor; she knew what treatment she would request to help get her cycle started.

It did not go well. Her doctor, like so many I’ve heard about, was not interested in the menstrual cycle research she had done or the choices she wanted to make about her reproductive health. Quite the contrary: her doctor was hostile. It was disheartening for her, maddening to me, but not surprising.

A day later, at another holiday gathering, the other young woman stopped me in the hall to ask what I thought of the Mirena. She’d made the switch from the combined Pill (estrogen/progestin) to a progestin-only version to help with migraines. She offered that she and her partner had not yet decided about children, but she was concerned about leaving it too late. I told her the Mirena was intended as a five-year method, and if she was thinking she might want a child, it was a good time to stop hormonal contraception and assess her fertility before making a decision, either way.

I forwarded both women links to a naturopath skilled in menstrual cycle and fertility issues, and to a fertility awareness instructor who’d just announced her 2014 Eco-Contraception Program. The decision about what to do next, of course, will be theirs.

I sense both young women are searching for new, mindful connections to their bodies. Even if all I ever do is help a few such women find the support they need to make this connection, then to hell with food and fashion, I’ll keep writing about the menstrual cycle.

Etiquette for menstruation

November 19th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Photo courtesy of sweeteningthepill.com

Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to lend an excerpt of my recently released book to the UK Sunday Times Style magazine. The mostly fashion-centric Style magazine is not really known for its edginess or risk-taking (except perhaps in the realm of shoe and make-up choices) and so I was happily surprised when the editor told me that the subject matter discussed in my book that she happened to find most interesting was, in fact, menstruation. I had expected her to want to focus on condoms perhaps, or just my personal story, but no, she was keenly interested in what I wrote about periods.

The argument I make in my book is that how we feel about hormonal birth control is inextricably linked to how we feel about menstruation. In a sense, many of the newer methods of hormonal birth control, as well as the newer uses (running packets of pills together, prescriptions for cramps or heavy bleeding) show an effort to get rid of the period completely, rather than just hide it away. I also discuss in the book, briefly, menstruation activism. However, I do defer to the far better work done by the likes of SMCR’s own Chris Bobel who writes on this topic with far more knowledge (not to mention wit).

You can read the feature in full here at my website (it’s otherwise behind an online pay wall and frankly I’m pleased to rob Rupert Murdoch of a few pounds by making it freely available).

In the end, the feature was not exactly an excerpt from my book – more so it was quotes from the book mixed with quotes from a long interview with the editor. Therefore I didn’t quite know what would be published in the magazine. The finished piece covered a range of controversial topics seen here at re:Cycling regularly – menstrual outing, reusable femcare products, the potential health benefits of ovulation…

If the high point of my career was getting the word “patriarchy” into the notoriously right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, I think I had another peak seeing this sentence in the Style (notorious for its high priced designer fashion spreads) – “This movement believes the act of stopping and hiding our periods with hormonal contraceptives and sanitary products is a mark of corporate ownership of our bodies.” I take great pride in also getting a discussion of menstrual extraction on to Style’s pages, and therefore onto the breakfast table of approximately one million British people – “an entire period’s worth of menstrual blood could be removed in a few hours instead of being experienced over days.” Well, if we can have Page 3, why not menstrual extraction?

The editor who did such a great job on this piece was Fleur Britten and in a funny twist of fate I realized, during our conversations, that in my first full time working position after college, at the publishing company Debrett’s in London, I worked as a production assistant on one of her books – Etiquette for Girls. At that time controversy surrounded Fleur’s section on the proper etiquette for one-night stands (I think it was something about getting out quickly, quietly, but leaving a nice handwritten note). So, it made me smile to see her skewer the etiquette of menstruation in the opening paragraph of this piece: “Many women are bored with having to take a whole handbag into the ladies rather than carry a tampon in their hand. Men say “I’m going to take a dump,” but we don’t say, “I’m just going to change my tampon.””

When I was carrying the proofs of Fleur’s book to the printers back some seven years ago, little did I know we would be conspiring to get the British public to say “I am menstruating” today over tea and toast.

“Prescribing the pill has become ‘standard-of-care’ for being a girl”

October 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

I had the privilege of writing the foreword for Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently published book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. It’s astounding to me that more than 30 years ago, before Holly was born, I was asking some of the same questions she explores in her book. I thought we’d have more answers by now, but one thing is certain: Holly’s book has prompted long-overdue discussion and debate about issues related to hormonal birth control. Below is my foreword to Sweetening the Pill.

………………..

In a letter dated March 22, 1980, I proposed to the editor of an American woman’s magazine that they consider my enclosed article: The Contraceptive Dilemma – A Subjective Appraisal of the Status of Birth Control.

I wrote:

“Recent articles (about birth control) deal almost exclusively with the basic pros, cons, and how-tos of the various contraceptives available – matter-of-fact discussions that reduce birth control to a mere pragmatic decision. If only that were the case. 

Contraception, like the sexual interaction that necessitates it, involves our emotions as much as it does the facts. Yet the subjective, personal aspect of contraception is so often ignored. In this age of scientific research we are expected to (subjugate) our emotional reactions to significant probabilities, our anger to logic. Very real fears and earnest questions are dismissed as irrelevant….”

Although today I wouldn’t use the phrase “emotional reactions,” it’s hard to believe that three decades later, the status of birth control and women’s relationship to it has not much changed. Websites, not magazines, now host information about the basic pros, cons and how-tos of available birth control methods. And it is writers like Holly, half my age, who honour women’s real fears and ask earnest questions that are still being dismissed as mostly irrelevant.

Just as my personal story with the pill – including over a year of distressing post-pill amenorrhea – set me on a course of research and advocacy, so too has Holly’s personal experience. Sweetening the Pill explores and challenges the ways in which the pill and other drug-based contraceptives damage women’s health, threaten our autonomy and thwart body literacy. What we don’t know about our bodies helps pharmaceutical companies “sell” their contraceptive drugs, and keeps us “addicted” to them.

At some point between my first attempt at non-hormonal contraceptive advocacy and Holly’s exploration of how we’ve become hooked on hormonal birth control, something disturbing transpired. Prescribing the pill, or other forms of hormonal contraception, has become, in the minds of most health-care providers, the “standard of care” for being a girl. It is all too common to subjugate a girl’s menstrual cycle to synthetic hormones that superficially “regulate,” but actually suspend the maturation of her reproductive system. And for many girls, the use of hormonal contraception continues well into their 20s, without awareness of what might be or has been sacrificed.

There are many women like Holly who are fed up with hormonal birth control. I’ve met scores of them during my 30 years involvement within the mainstream pro-choice sexual and reproductive health community, the one that prides itself on inclusion and diversity. Yet I’ve been unsuccessful in my constant advocacy for this community to accommodate a more inclusive, diverse approach to contraception, to provide acknowledgement, support and services to women who cannot or do not want to use drug- or devised-based methods. We pay lip service to the idea, but the message we convey is: “You’re on your own.”

I’ve found enthusiasm in other realms for my menstrual cycle advocacy and my belief that many women want to, and can, learn to use non-hormonal methods effectively and confidently. I’ve found scientific evidence of the value of ovulation to women’s health and well-being.

I’ve read, met or worked with several of the sources included in this book. Many have devoted their careers to understanding women’s bodies and our relationships with our bodies in ways the medical mainstream typically ignores and barely comprehends. They have made contributions that help us imagine a different way of thinking about fertility, contraception and our menstrual cycles in relation to our sexual, reproductive and overall health.

Feminism, Backlash, and Sweetening The Pill

September 13th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

It’s been more than 20 years since Susan Faludi first published Backlash (with the provocative subtitle, The Undeclared War Against American Women), her thorough documentation of the ways women and feminism were under attack in the U.S. The War Against Women has been now been openly declared in American politics, and there is a backlash among women in online feminism.

I’m referring to discussions of hormonal birth control; specifically, how and with whom we can criticize the birth control pill. Before she joined the re:Cycling team, Holly Grigg-Spall wrote a guest post for us titled, Why Can’t We Criticize the Pill?  At the time, the title may have seemed a little overwrought, but now that her book criticizing the pill has reached the market and been reviewed in several online publications (including by some reviewers who refused to even read it), the question is more than apt. Lindsay Beyerstein’s review for Slate prompted some readers to start a petition asking the publisher to cease publication. Amanda Marcotte has written two posts on her blog slamming the book without reading it, and refused offers of a free copy so that she could respond accurately. Dr. Jen Gunter is also uninterested in reading it, labeling the book “that atrocious pill book” on Twitter and suspecting “a pro-life agenda”.

The criticisms of the book are many and inconsistent: (1) an assertion that Grigg-Spall claims the pill is bad because it is not ‘natural’,  (2) since the pill was bad for Grgg-Spall, no one should take it; (3) the pill is sexist and therefore dangerous; (4) the pill is anti-feminist; and furthermore, (5) Holly advances all of these claims in service of a anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-choice, pro-life, Christian right-wing agenda. That last one is particularly galling, as every time she speaks or writes about these issues, Holly prefaces her talk or mentions in her writing that she is atheist, feminist, and pro-choice. (She often also mentions that she’s British, and was raised with a very different health care system than those of us in the U.S., and thus held different assumptions about access.)

All of these criticisms are either factually incorrect, or exaggerated or deliberate misinterpretations of Holly’s actual arguments. For instance, while she does question what ‘natural’ cycles would be like if women didn’t take the pill, she does not assert that pill = unnatural = bad. Nor does she advocate banning or restricting the pill. She does locate the pill in a complex matrix of capitalist and patriarchal social structures that do not benefit women, which is not exactly the same as saying “the pill is sexist”.

As a feminist, a scholar, and as a reader of books, I’m both fascinated and frustrated by the criticism Sweetening the Pill has received. I’m appalled that reviewers would write and publish reviews completely panning a book they haven’t read, and then refuse to read it. As a feminist, I’m frustrated by apparent efforts to shut down dissent. The pill has never been more politicized in American life, and as I’ve asserted elsewhere, we cannot be so focused on preserving access that we’re willing to ignore questions of safety. Furthermore, it is not anti-feminist to disagree with one another. Feminism has a long history of proliferating and becoming more powerful by listening to dissent from within. Anyone remember the “Lavender Menace“? The emergence of intersectionality? As a commenter on one of the hack pieces eloquently put it,

The feminist critique of reproductive technology (including the pill’s discontents) are well established going back before the existence of the pill itself as debates with Sanger and colleagues. I’m sure this is widely taught in the Women’s Studies programmes you mention, it was to us even in A-level sociology.

I just don’t understand why you are pretending this is a new thing or that anyone taking these positions is a non-feminist. Are genuinely unaware of the history of your own movement or is this a crude rhetorical move against people you don’t agree with? Feminists (Seaman and Wolfson) provided critical testimony in the 1970 Senate Hearings, this is not some sort of obscure or secret fact, Wolfson’s outburst as to the constitution of the hearings and why drug companies were better represented than women is surely famous?

It seems to be the case you want to retro-actively kick Barbara Seaman out of feminism. You know, the woman that Gloria Steinem said was the prophet of the women’s health movement… with respect I don’t think you have the power and you don’t have an argument.

Feminism has always supported counter-intuitive critiques given that problems are multi-valenced. While Sanger held that reproductive control was an essential pre-condition of liberation, “who controls the control”, why and how are far more provocative questions.

Agree or disagree with Sweetening the Pill, or any other book, but read it for yourself, and form an opinion based on what the book actually says — not what a reviewer says or a 140-character criticism on Twitter suspects it might say. And think very carefully, and perhaps read it again, before you decide that it’s not feminism just because it doesn’t match exactly your feminism.

Contemplative Dialogue and the Menstrual Cycle Polarity

August 21st, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Why are media-based discussions about menstrual cycle advocacy vs. menstrual suppression, or hormonal birth control (HBC) vs. non-hormonal birth control (NHBC), so often fraught with conflict, suspicion and untested assumptions?

Because the opposing frames of reference are often considered to be an either/or dilemma, with “right” and “wrong” solutions according to our preferred position, rather than two ends of a polarity between which a dynamic range of positions fluctuate. We live with many common sense polarities, like rain and sunshine, knowing the right combination of both is in our best interests.

Please Don’t Judge Me for Skipping My Period, a recent post by Sarah Fazeli at Xojane illustrates the challenges in managing polarities. The title suggests the writer expects to be or has already been judged for her “wrong” decision, yet many of the 427 comments demonstrate the range of positions held on the issue.

At one end of the menstrual cycle polarity is my preferred position – based on experience, research and evidence-based medicine - that consistent ovulatory menstruation supports women’s bone, breast, heart, reproductive, sexual, psychological and overall health. HBC disrupts endocrine function and stops ovulation, impacting many physiological systems. Many women are choosing NHBC because they are HBC-intolerant and/or want to experience healthy menstrual cycles. I advocate for improved access to information, support and services to help them use NHBC effectively and confidently.

I understand how my position might be construed as an either/or dilemma, but in no way am I demanding HBC be banned, bullying women to stop taking their pills or alluding to anti-abortion views. Yet others make and act on untested assumptions that I and others who hold this position are doing some or all of these things.

So how might we all – advocates, health professionals, educators, journalists, bloggers and the public – talk about the menstrual cycle polarity in ways that create opportunities and commitment to work together to meet all women’s needs?

For answers I revisited my training manual in Contemplative Dialogue. In 2009, I  took a four-day intensive workshop to learn about this process of engaging collective awareness to create “a deep experience of community where division or separation may have been the felt starting point.”

Contemplative means taking a long, compassionate look at the real; dialogue is the practice of creating shared meaning. Compassion is a key element because “it helps us get past the kind of guarded and defended reactions that undercut us doing things together.”

I refreshed my memory on how to avoid acting on untested assumptions. I thought about how I might become skilled enough to back not just myself but other people down Chris Argyris’s “ladder of inference” in a non-threatening way to resolve misunderstandings and create shared meaning.

Contemplative Dialogue also incorporates into its process Barry Johnson’s work in managing polarities. In emotional debates it helps if we can learn to speak across polar values.

This process calls for me to identify both my preferred value and the opposite value. In dialogue I first acknowledge the upside of the opposite value followed by the potential downside of my preferred value. Keeping my language fair and non-pejorative, I then speak of the downside of the opposite value that I fear. Finally, I get to talk about the upside outcomes to my preferred value that I’m striving for.

I want to keep talking about these issues, but I’m not up for a range war, a spilling of metaphorical menstrual blood to determine who holds the higher ground or owns the greater truth. I’m committed to practicing contemplative dialogue to bridge the divisions between the two ends of the menstrual cycle polarity.

Yaz and Yasmin Back in the Spotlight

May 9th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill

Last year the FDA made the decision to keep the birth control pills Yaz, Yasmin, and Beyaz on the market despite controversy over corporate corruption of the review process.These drugs are back in the spotlight.

The French health minister has called for doctors to stop writing prescriptions, 2,000 lawsuits against Bayer launched in Canada last month, and Marie Claire Australia dedicated five pages to an in-depth feature about the side effects, instigating an investigation by the country’s top current affairs show Today Tonight.

Bayer has gone about settling the 13,000 lawsuits in the US out of court, likely with the hope of keeping the details of confidential files regarding marketing techniques and research out of the public eye. Unperturbed by mounting reports from women of the myriad health issues caused by their products, the company launched Yaz Flex in Australia at the end of 2012. The first oral contraceptive on the Australian market presented as being for the purpose of preventing periods, Yaz Flex comes in a digital dispenser that records how many pills have been taken and alerts the user when she’s missed a dose. There are enough tablets to allow for just three breaks a year. In the US in April the FDA, equally unperturbed, ruled that pharmaceutical company Activis can start selling generic versions of Yaz, providing a low-cost version of what has been the most expensive oral contraceptive of recent years.

The feature in Marie Claire Australia generated 300+ comments on the magazine and television show’s Facebook pages. Many of the commenters were women who had developed blood clots when taking these brands. Some had made the connection at the time and others made the link only as a result of the coverage after months or years of not knowing why they had endured the injuries. Some of the women were presently experiencing the symptoms of a blood clot mentioned in the show and made the decision to stop taking the pill as they typed.

The piece was written by a long-time member of the Yaz and Yasmin Survivors forum and balances interviews with women who suffered the serious physical side effects with those who have been victim to the serious psychological side effects. I’m among those who experienced a long list of negative physical and psychological effects when taking Yasmin for more than two years and it was this forum that prompted me to stop taking it.

Monash University in Australia is one of the few facilities to have undertaken research into the correlation between birth control pills and depression. Professor Jayashri Kulkarni found that women on the pill were twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety, and mental numbness (known as anhedonia). The Yale Daily News reports that in the wake of her research receiving a little media attention Dr Kulkarni received more than 300 emails from women “clearly describing when they went off the pill that they felt subjectively more happy. The anhedonia, for example, disappeared, the irritability disappeared, the sense of poor self esteem disappeared”.

She is now focusing her attention on researching what she believes to be the particular psychological impact of the Yaz brands, those pills containing the synthetic progesterone drospirenone and low-dose synthetic estrogen.

Although there is no direct-to-consumer advertising in Australia these brands of pill gained popularity there just as they did in Europe and Canada. It is interesting to note that Marie Claire US ran an article in 2011 titled ‘The New Super Pill’ that named Yaz and Yasmin as the latest, greatest “no-acne, no-bloat and pms-be-gone” pills that also allow you to “shorten your period”. The pages of magazines such as Marie Claire in the US are usually scattered with adverts for Yaz and Yasmin, the NuvaRing, Nexplanon impant, and Mirena IUD. The print and television commercials often play on the same insecurities reflected and bolstered by the majority of the women’s magazine articles.

Little Girls! Just Say Yes to Your Dreams!

March 18th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

Seen this one yet? (or the (eerily) related “Birth Control on the Bottom“?)

We posted “Sassy Girlz Candy Birth Control Pills” (written by Carissa Leone in 2011) in our regular installment Weekend Links on Feb 2. I had a mixed reaction. And when a couple re:Cycling readers described the video as “nasty,” I knew we needed to dig in a bit.

Let’s discuss.

There’s something very absurdly funny about eating birth control, even if the women are still tweens and the birth control is merely mulit- colored jelly beans intended to get young girls in the pill-popping groove before they are saddled with a baby and an half-finished high school education.

First of all, women CAN eat their birth control, donchaknow… Warner Chilcott brought to market their chewable, spearmint flavor oral contraceptive, Femcon Fe, for women who have difficulty swallowing pills and apparently, find stopping for 30 seconds to swallow water.

But I digress (I guess I just want to be clear that we are ALREADY munching our pills).

It is hard not to love how this sketch takes down the pandering to the girl tween market. Oh lordy. There’s so much potential there! (one estimate figures that kids aged 8-12 years are spending $30 billion OF THEIR OWN MONEY and nagging their parents to spend another $150 billion annually!) Little girls quickly move from Disney to diets, from fingerpaint to fake eyelashes, from tutus to belly shirts…..I have seen it with my own girls and it feels, frankly, like an inexorable force.

Viral sketch writer Carissa Leone graciously replied to my questions regarding the piece. When I asked her what inspired her, she channeled her Women’s Studies training (go team!) and supplied her two main reasons:

(1) “I saw a little girl on the subway,holding a baby doll in one of those pretend baby slings…and I thought, “If only she really knew what motherhood was like. I wonder if anyone has explained the authentic experience. I wish she were carrying a briefcase and reading a teeny issue of Ms. magazine instead… “

AND

(2) “The idea that women can/should have it all, in terms of relationships and families and career still seems to be put forth as a tangible (and”correct”) goal in Western culture. It’s a pressure I and many other peers feel, and one that I don’t think is truly possible, or necessarily awesome.”

And Big Pharma takes a hit, too, per the spot’s director, Brian Goetz, who offered this when I asked him about what led to the sketch:

“I wanted to do the video because the script spoke so well to the branding of pharmaceutical commercials, where no matter what the product, as long as you say there’s a problem and that you have the solution, throw some happy people and fun b-roll in it, you’ve got a successful campaign. On top of that, it’s always fun to legitimize terrible ideas in sketch comedy. And if that means having multi-colored jelly bean birth control pills, all the better.”

But I think there’s more to it that that.

Why do I find myself laughing and crying at the same time? Well, I just finished my advance copy of Holly Grigg-Spall’s forthcoming Sweetening the Pill  or How We Became Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control (out this Spring with Zero Books). In it (and here as well, on this blog), Grigg-Spall makes the case the hormonal contraceptives have become so normative that we, as consumers, permit an imperfect (at best) product to flourish even while other options may be more appropriate. The one-pill-fits-all mindset is so pervasive and bores in so deep, so young, Grigg-Spall argues, that when someone says, ‘hey! I don’t want to be on the pill,’ these—what she calls “pill refugees” — are hastily branded as irresponsible, antifeminist, or just plain dumb. That is, the pill gets constructed as our savior, our liberator, our saving grace, even when its not.

And that’s where this spoof enters….since the pill IS all these things, let’s get those girlies on board NOW! Why wait? Good habits start young, after all. And product loyalty is not just for toothpaste and laundry detergent….

And so, “Sassy Girlz Candy Birth Control Pills” is super smart feminist critique. It calls out the enduring wrongheadnessness of romanticizing motherhood and co-opting what I would call a tragically hollowed-out pseudo feminism harnessed to push product:

  • Little girls playing Mommy is cute, and kinda bullshit!
  • Its never too early to teach little girls about options!
  • She’ll know that birth control means winning a college scholarship

Yup. There’s lots of problems with that. Thanks to the feminist satirists to help us see.

But I have to say one more thing.

Leone and I discussed (what I consider) the unfortunate below-the-belt invocation of gender dysphoria to as she put it, “most absurd, heightening beat” in the sketch (here’s another, more recent example of same, on SNL). I don’t think trans or gender queer or otherwise gender variant people should ever serve as punchlines, as I told Leone so in our email exchange. When I inquired about this moment in an otherwise spot-on sketch, she said that is was never intended it as a negative perception of transgendered kids. But still  it is, and I think it points with a big fat finger at how much work we still need to do to move trans issues from margin to center.

Let’s push forward without leaving anyone behind. Let’s laugh at feminist satire that avoids (even unintended) transphobia. Let’s keep our targets clear and our allies clearer. Let’s say YES to that dream, for real.

I am a pro-choice menstrual cycle advocate

January 9th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

As 2013 begins, I give thanks to each and every one of my colleagues at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and all my blogging buddies at re:Cycling. Without them I’d feel left out in the cold.  

Are menstrual cycle advocates left out in the cold? Photo by Laura Wershler

I’ve been a menstrual cycle advocate since 1979 when, during a year of post-pill amenorrhea that totally freaked me out, I began to research the ill effects of hormonal contraception. It is not an understatement to say that reading  Barbara Seaman’s national bestseller Women and The Crisis in Sex Hormones changed my life. It started me on a path of self-discovery, and commitment to the idea that healthy, ovulatory menstruation is integral to women’s health and well-being. If you don’t know about Barbara Seaman and her work in women’s health activism, please read about her.

My menstrual cycle advocacy took what could be considered a counter-intuitive path. I aligned myself with the pro-choice sexual health community, committed to comprehensive access to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. I’ve been as much a contraception and abortion rights advocate over the last three decades as I’ve been a menstrual cycle advocate. But I was a successful user and ardent advocate of the fertility awareness method long before I became a board director at the pro-choice Calgary Birth Control Association in 1986. I went on to serve 10 years on the board of Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada and worked for six years as executive director of Planned Parenthood Alberta, which became Sexual Health Access Alberta in 2006. I’m currently on the board of Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, the former PPFC.

I stress my pro-choice credentials because I think I’m often suspected of being anti-choice. Surely any woman who advocates for healthy, ovulatory menstruation and speaks out against the health concerns inherent in hormonal birth control methods must be anti-contraception and anti-choice. I am neither. More broadly, I’ve written and talked a lot about the value of body literacy for women’s health and well-being.

I wonder sometimes why I’ve stuck it out with the pro-choice sexual health community. While many have been open to my ideas, I have seen little effort to learn about the health benefits of ovulatory menstruation or acknowledge the need – let alone act – to better serve women who want to use non-hormonal contraception. It’s frustrating to be a lone voice, but I keep talking.

It took me over 20 years to find the community that serves and appreciates my menstrual cycle advocacy. I attended my first Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in 2005, and that’s how I came to belong to this diverse group of academics, medical professionals, researchers, activists and artists committed to advancing knowledge and awareness of the menstrual cycle. We come from different perspectives, we ask different questions and we focus on different aspects of women’s menstrual lives. But we all hold true to the same idea: #menstruationmatters.

Menstrual cycle advocacy can be lonely and oh so frustrating. Chris Bobel’s recent post about how difficult it can be to help others make the menstrual connection included this quote from me:

Caring about menstruation and the menstrual cycle makes me almost a freak in the pro-choice world. I get ignored or criticized a lot because people don’t want to ask or answer some of the questions I keep trying to pose about choice around non-hormonal contraceptive methods. 

Thanks to SMCR and re:Cycling, I’m not going to stop asking hard questions, or challenging the ignorance and avoidance that many in the mainstream sexual health-care community demonstrate when it comes to ovulation, the menstrual cycle and fertility awareness. I’ll keep chirping and chipping away.

I’m fed up with birth control propaganda

October 17th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Birth control in the U.S. has become synonymous with drugs and devices. The pill, patch, or ring; Depo-Provera or hormonal implant; copper IUD or Mirena IUD; traditional hormonal birth control or long-acting reversible contraceptives. All impact the function of the menstrual cycle; some suppress it completely. As a pro-choice menstrual cycle advocate I take issue with the fact that keeping your cycle and contracepting effectively are now considered mutually exclusive.

A widely published Associated Press story tells us that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends hormonal implants and IUDs as the best birth control methods for teenagers. The research this recommendation is based on did not even study pregnancy outcomes for women using condoms, barriers, or fertility awareness methods. These methods were not among the free contraceptives offered to study participants. Another story reported that ”the new guidelines say that physicians should talk about (implants and IUDs) with sexually active teens at every doctor visit.” This sounds like a hardcore sales pitch to me. I expressed my concerns about pushing LARCs on teenagers in a previous re:Cycling post.

Drugs and devices also figure prominently in Switching Contraceptives EffectivelyNew York Times health writer Jane E. Brody writes about the mistakes women make when switching between birth control methods that can result in unintended pregnancies. The reasons women switch are explored and a link to a resource on how to switch methods successfully is provided.

The Reproductive Health Access Project developed the pamphlet to help women prevent gaps in contraception when they change methods. The premise is a good one:

What’s the best way to switch from one birth control method to another? To lower the chance of getting pregnant, avoid a gap between methods. Go straight from one method to the next, with no gaps between methods.

But the pamphlet developers made the huge false assumption that all women just need or want to try another drug or devise. It focuses ONLY on these method — how to switch from the pill to Depe-Provera or the copper IUD, or how to switch from the Mirena IUD to the progestin implant. Condoms and barrier methods are considered useful ONLY for the transition period between drugs and devices. Fertility Awareness Methods are ignored completely. The resource comes across as propaganda for drug- and device-based birth control methods.

Neither Brody nor those behind the Reproductive Health Access Project seem to understand that this approach contributes to the unplanned pregnancy rate by failing to acknowledge that many women are fed up with contraceptive drugs and devices. These women want support and information to switch away from these methods. They are falling though the contraceptive gap created by this failure.

Is it any wonder that some women stop using their contraceptives without talking to their physicians? Maybe they are fed up with doctors like Ruth Lesnewski, education director of the Reproductive Health Access Project, who offers trite admonishment that side effects ”will go away with time” and insists that caution about using long-acting methods like the IUD or hormonal implant is “outdated.” Real health issues are associated with all these methods. I guess Dr. Lesnewski doesn’t read health blogs where women document their frustration about side effects and dismissive health-care providers.

This article places blame for contraceptive failure on women not knowing how birth control works, instead of where the blame really belongs — on the blind spot that keeps sexual and reproductive health-care providers from seeing, and serving, women who are sick and tired of drugs and devices.

As for the ACOG recommendation on the best birth control methods for teens? It’s just a step away from coercive, patriarchal decision-making by doctors for teenage girls, and a threat to the sexual agency of many young women.

Could use of the pill be linked to insulin resistance?

October 3rd, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Adapted from a photo by anna marie-grace // CC 2.0

The pill is one of the most intensely studied drugs in history, and believed to be among the safest – safer than aspirin, as an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health noted twenty years ago. Yet young women seem to be quitting in droves, for a variety of reasons: to restore feelings of psychological and emotional health, regain lost libido, relieve cardiovascular symptoms and disorders, or ease anxiety about these or other health issues.

When women report these side effects of birth control pills, physicians often recommend they try another brand, but many of these side effects are common to hormonal birth control, especially oral contraceptives. A new study published this month in Human Reproduction suggests there may be yet another common side effect: Researchers in Finland found that oral contraceptives may worsen insulin sensitivity and are associated with increased levels of circulating inflammatory markers.

The study was very small and ran only for a short time, so drawing conclusions is premature, but since the beginning of the year, I’ve been following several online discussions of young women quitting the pill. Although I have yet to see development of Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance cited as a reason to quit the pill, I have seen such a variety of health issues and medical problems described that this study caught my eye immediately. Current estimates indicate that 12.6 million, or 10.8 percent, of all U.S. women ages 20 years or older have diabetes (diagnosed and undiagnosed). Could it be related to their birth control? Perhaps in those already genetically predisposed.

Research from the Guttmacher Institute indicates nearly 60% of pill users take it for non-contraceptive reasons, such as for cramps or other menstrual pain, menstrual regulation, acne, endometriosis, as well as for prevention of unintended pregnancy. Fourteen per cent of US pill users (more than 1.5 million women) take birth control pills solely for non-contraceptive reasons. If the Finland study proves to hold true for larger groups over extended periods, there’s another reason to be more cautious prescribing the pill.

 

Hormone Imbalance: Breaking the Silence

September 5th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Leslie Carol Botha Women’s Health Freedom Coalition Coordinator, Natural Solutions Foundation

I still remember the first Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference I attended in Tucson, AZ in June, 1999. The statement that made the most impact was the collective concern that in ten years there might no longer be a menstrual cycle. It turns out the truer words were never spoken.

In the past 40 years, the pharmaceutical industry has spewed out and packaged and repackaged so many synthetic hormone contraceptives – pills, injections, and implants that virtually eliminate the menstrual cycle.  It also amazes me that in the 30 years I have been involved with the women’s health movement condoms and spermicide are still the safest and most effective contraceptive on the market.

However, a new trend is emerging as condoms and birth control pills are being pushed on the back burner because of ‘human error’. Women and men are not always diligent or careful about condom use, and many girls and women forget to take their pills.  What is now being prescribed to adolescent girls – whether or not they are sexually active — are implants and injections. Health considerations are not taken into consideration, nor are hormone levels. Somehow the pharmaceutical industry still views this as a one-size-fits-all prescription for all women, no matter their age of their state of health.

Menstrual cycle advocates are most aware that birth ‘control’ is about control…controlling the woman’s body with potentially harmful synthetic hormones. What has been overlooked are education and natural methods of fertility awareness.

While our focus recently has been on the politics of birth control, another ugly monster has reared its head and that is the silent epidemic of hormone imbalance. Not only is this the result of taking synthetic hormones for birth control but our environment, our foods, and water supplies are filled with estrogen mimickers upsetting the delicate orchestration of hormones in our bodies.

Another concern is the excess estrogen stored in women’s bodies and passed on genetically to their offspring.  It is possible that their children are hormonally imbalanced at birth.

Either way, the damage has been done. I believe we are at the tip of the iceberg in this silent epidemic and that hundreds of thousands of women are being misdiagnosed and over-prescribed. In most cases, thyroid imbalance is not considered as a cause of depression, and the prescribed fix is generally Prozac or a higher dose of synthetic hormones.

In 2009, I posted an article to my blog, from eHow editor, Shelly Macrea titled: What is Hormone Imbalance?, a very informative article and probably one of the first pieces for a general audience on the myriad of conditions that hormone imbalance can cause.

At the time I had three responses (with an average of 30,000 unique visitors a month.) In June of this year, another post on the article (which by this time was buried in my archives) appeared from a woman suffering anxiety due to hormone imbalance. And then another post appeared and I decided to bring the article out of the archives and re-post it. What ensued was a steady stream of women commenting on almost a daily basis on their extreme anxiety and depression and the myriad of misdiagnosis and drugs they were prescribed. I am posting the link here so that others can read what I believe should be of concern to all of us: Hormone Imbalance Anxiety, A Precursor to Other Health Issues.

In March of this year, I posted Laura Wershler’s article Coming off Depo Provera Can Be a Woman’s Worst Nightmare. Once again, truer words were never spoken. More and more women are now posting about their experiences on this drug – and the ensuing hormone imbalance and health issues.

Women are suffering.

This is an insidious ‘War on Women’. On the one hand we have had to fight for our reproductive rights and the availability of birth control – on the other hand it is the same birth control that is slowly killing us.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.