Most of my peers in age and marital status (twenties and single) are immensely grateful for the freedoms we have as far as family planning is concerned. And, the various other benefits of using the birth control pill – acne reduction, lighter menstrual flow, and fewer cramps make the contraceptive seem like a miracle pill.
But these days, as the rate of prescription is on the rise — especially among women from ages 13-18, I think it’s important for current and potential oral contraceptive users to know all of the angles. Besides preventing pregnancy and clearing up skin, what are the other physiological and even environmental effects that come along with using the pill?
Using oral contraceptives will affect your:
Researchers conducted a study to determine what effect, if any, oral contraceptives have on female libido.
Because pupil size is involuntary, the researchers trusted pupillary dilation to demonstrate sexual interest. The experiment showed that pupil size among women was largest during their ovulatory phase. When women were presented with images of “sexually significant” objects, such as boyfriends and favorite actors, the women taking oral contraception did not show any variation of pupil size throughout the different cyclical phases. This lack of response is attributed to the pill’s suppression of natural hormones such as testosterone, which is related to sexual motivation (Laeng et al.)
In a study by Sanders et al., almost half of the test group (47%) discontinued the use of oral contraceptives due to an undesirable change in their sex lives. Many of these women reported lower sex drives, among other things.
There are several positive long-term effects that accompany the use of oral contraception, but the pill also increases the risks of a few life-threatening diseases. According to The Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, there is an increased risk of localized breast cancer among pill-users.
Oral contraceptive use increases the risk of myocardial infarction by approximately two-fold, even after controlling for risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, and obesity. Also, birth control users over the age of 35 have a 2.2-fold higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke as compared to non-users. In addition, the use of oral contraceptives creates a three-fold higher rate of risk for venous thromboembolism.
Oral contraceptive use is also linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer. Studies show that the pill propagates cervical cancer directly on a cellular level, and also as a co-factor; taking the pill affects users’ sexual practices, and thus can contribute to the transmission of STI’s, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. So, the increased risk of cervical cancer as a result of pill-use falls under both health and sexual practices.
Letting Your Guard Down
The incidence of STIs is also on the rise, which complicates the issue of finding a suitable method of
contraception. One of the risk factors for HPV, a particularly rapidly spreading STI, is the monthly rate of new partners (Brabin 2002), which can be associated with the use of birth control. This is because some women who use oral contraceptives also have multiple sexual partners (at the same time, or during the course of their lifetime), and still use only the pill as a method of contraception — as opposed to any barrier methods, in order to prevent pregnancy. But of course, the pill does not protect against STIs, and thus women are left vulnerable to the virus. Subjects attribute this practice to the inconvenience of barrier methods such as condoms, as well as a concern over getting pregnant that trumps a fear of contracting STIs.
It’s clear that the pill can have adverse effects on users, but it affects non-users as well. The waste stream is a major conveyor of residue from pharmaceuticals and personal care products, of which synthetic hormones from oral contraceptives are one. The waste stream carries PPCPs from sewage systems to waterways.
One effect that synthetic hormones have is the feminization of male fish populations. In a study done by Jobling et al., the researchers found that rates of intersex wild roach (Rutilus rutilus, a common cyprinid fish) corresponded with amounts of exposure to estrogen in the rivers studied. Jobling et al. characterized intersex as evidence of oocytes (immature egg cells) in the fishes’ testes, and/or the presence of an ovarian cavity in addition to the sperm duct. Yikes.
Scientist also studied a population of fathead minnows, and found that the synthetic estrogen used in birth control pills (ethynylestradiol) leads to adverse effects for the reproductivity of both male and female minnows (Kidd et al.). There was evidence of feminization among males, which took the form of impact on their gonadal development, as well as altered oogenesis in the female populations.
A study by the University of Colorado, Boulder found similar results — feminized male fish, higher rates of intersex fish, etc. CU researchers also conducted a study that found fish populations that had completely skewed male to female ratios as a result of chemical contaminants (due to birth control) in Boulder’s waterways. The male fish actually changed gender as a result of hormone levels in the water, thereby causing a population with 10 times as many females present as there were males.
If nothing else, an important message to take away from these findings is that the pill — while a seemingly simple fix to a complex problem, comes with a great deal of side effects; be they physical, emotional, or environmental. Furthermore, it doesn’t protect against STIs, and if anything, makes you more susceptible. We’re fortunate to live in an age where we have many resources and options when it comes to contraception, so there’s no reason not to make an informed decision that’s safest for you — and the world around you!
Some suggestions for more physio- and eco-friendly contraceptives are:
- Condoms. People complain about the inconvenience of condoms, but my argument in their defense is that years ago, sex always = babies. I think we’re lucky to be able to have sex for fun these days, and condoms are a small price to pay. Out of all contraceptives, condoms appear to be the most wasteful, but a way to temper that would be to buy condoms like Sir Richard’s. They’re like TOMS for your Johnson; for every one of these vegan, compostable condoms you purchase, one is donated to a developing country that’s grappling with devastating rates of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
Condoms are also one of the methods that is the least intrusive on the human body (there are alternative materials available for those with latex allergies). They don’t alter your body’s hormones (or those of the fishies!)
- IUDs. Sort of on the opposite side of the spectrum from condoms, the only effects of the intrauterine device will be on the user. A previous post on elephant journal discusses this method in detail.
- Rhythm Method/ Fertility Awareness Method. This one definitely should not the method of choice for young women/couples, but for an adult woman who knows her body (and when used in tandem with condoms in ‘iffy’ situations), this method can be effective. It can also be ineffectual as it is dependent on several sensitive variables. But, if practiced carefully, FAM is a very healthy and green method.
- Vasectomy. If you know your family (or lack thereof) is perfect as is, this is a relatively simply and highly green method. It has no health effects on women or the environment, and the health effects on men are minor in almost all cases.
- And, to lighten the mood, a free dose of the “best” birth control on the market:
Sasha Aronson has a degree in Literature from Colby College. She worked for publishers in the Big Apple, but prefers living mindfully and adventurously in Boulder, Colorado.