[A] man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium [emphasis added] reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. – Blessed Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (17)
It is common, with regard to politically-charged issues, to use the term “denier” to describe those who dispute what is considered irrefutable scientific evidence. However, an exception is made for those who downplay the numerous scientific studies revealing the damaging effect of hormonal contraceptives on women. Sadly, this deliberate ignorance is practiced by many women themselves, who, as was demonstrated in the Women’s March, mis-associate contraception use with freedom and self-respect.
However, an honest examination of the science would show just the opposite is true. The side-effects of hormonal contraception range in severity from the potential to develop cancer down to weight gain or moodiness. Although medical personnel acknowledges the existence of these side-effects, their detriment to women is often dismissed as insignificant. Or it is suggested that women should simply grin and bear them as a small price to pay for avoiding an unwanted pregnancy.
This is hardly an attitude that respects a woman’s “physical and emotional equilibrium.” However, there is some evidence that younger women are beginning to reject this singular focus on reproduction and are finding their own solutions that value their quality of life and their dignity as complete persons.
Breast Cancer and Hormonal Contraceptives
The World Health Organization (WHO), classifies combined oral contraceptives (COCs) and combined hormonal menopausal treatment as “Carcinogens (Group 1)-Carcinogenic to humans.” This is the same level of risk as tobacco and asbestos.
However, this life-threatening potential of hormonal contraceptives was not widely reported in the media until the publication of studies conducted by the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) which examined the effectiveness of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for post-menopausal women.
These trials, begun 1995, were ended prematurely after 2004 by the WHI’s Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB). Results showed treatment with artificial hormones, administered both singly and in combination, was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, some increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and more harm than benefit overall.
“My Advice to Women is Absolutely No Different”
Of course, the WHI findings regarding HRT raised issues concerning the safety of these same hormones prescribed to pre-menopausal women as contraceptives. Predictably, birth control vendors, such as Planned Parenthood, were dismissive of the risks. Because the hormones used for contraception were of a lower dosage than those used in HRT, medical experts believed the potential for developing cancerous side effects was too small to warrant concern.
A 2005 NBC report quoted Dr. Steven R. Goldstein, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Medical Center:
My advice to women is absolutely no different , …, I think the benefits outweigh the risk [emphasis added]. …I don’t think there’s good science that they will have more breast cancer, especially in the doses and the way we are using it.
However, twelve years later, there is some “good science” that shows even the smaller doses can result in more breast cancer.
Small But Significant
On Dec. 6, The New York Times published the results of a Danish study which was the first to examine the risks associated with current formulations of birth control pills and devices in a large population.
The study followed 1.8 million Danish women for over ten years. Based on their findings, the researchers estimate for every 100,000 women, hormone contraceptive use causes an additional 13 breast cancer cases a year. That is, for every 100,000 women using hormonal birth control, there are 68 cases of breast cancer annually, compared with 55 cases a year among nonusers.
Thus, as in the HRT studies, researchers found “women who rely on birth control pills or contraceptive devices that release hormones face a small but significant increase in the risk for breast cancer.”
The study…upends widely held assumptions about modern contraceptives for younger generations of women. Many women have believed that newer hormonal contraceptives are much safer than those taken by their mothers or grandmothers, which had higher doses of estrogen.
Hormonal Contraceptives and Depression
Beyond the cancer issue, current research indicates a side-effect innocuously labeled as “mood-swings” could be far more serious. A 2016 study conducted by the University of Copenhagen confirmed a strong link between contraceptives and clinical depression. As reported by Holly Grigg-Spall for The Guardian, this study was the largest of its kind, surveying one million Danish women between the ages of 15 and 34 tracked for a total of 13 years.
Researchers found that women taking the combined oral contraceptive were 23% more likely to be diagnosed with depression and those using progestin-only pills…were 34% more likely. Teens were at the greatest risk of depression, [emphasis added] with an 80% increase when taking the combined pill, and that risk is two-fold with the progestin-only pill.
In addition, other hormone-based methods commonly offered to women…such as the hormonal IUS/coil, the patch and the ring, were shown to increase depression at a rate much higher than either kind of oral contraceptives.
Despite these findings and those of other other smaller studies, Grigg-Spall observed that the medical community continues to tell women “not to be alarmed, concerned, or deterred from continuing to use our hormonal contraceptives.”
Millennial Women Begin to Reject the Pill
Fortunately, sources such as The Atlantic, The Telegraph (UK), and CNN are beginning to report trends among millennials and other female demographic groups that indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the hormonal contraceptive status quo.
In an article in the December 2017 issue of Vogue magazine, the author, Lottie Winter, observed:
In its glory days [the pill] represented the liberation of women from the fear of unwanted pregnancies allowing them to act freely and safely for the first time ever. But if you’re a millennial (born…between 1982 and 1996), it’s likely your attitude is more complex.
Winter goes on to cite an NHS study that found “the number of women …who used user-dependent contraception, including the pill, had dropped by more than 13% between 2005 and 2015.” The reasons for this were diverse, from the potentially cancer-causing effects to the more mundane, fatigue with the everyday experiences of “mood swings, bloating, and weight gain.”
As Are Women in France
Last October, French public radio host Sabrina Debusquat conducted a survey of 3,616 French women who had taken the Pill and found out why 91% had stopped at least one time. As reported by Gerard Migeon at naturalwomanhood.org, Debusquat summarized the three main reasons respondents gave for no longer taking hormonal contraceptives.
First, “the minor but problematic side effects,” such as weight gain, mood disorders, and migraines.
These are typical side-effects that doctors will try to correct by changing prescription but tend to consider a minor and acceptable [emphasis added] part of being on contraceptives. French women are no longer OK with that…any [type of] pain that spoils a good part of their lives is not ‘benign.’
The second reason is a concern about the effects on a woman’s health in general, not just specific to the reproductive system.
Since 2013, France has become better aware of the risks of blood clots after a high profile report of the number of accidents caused by the 3rd and 4th generation pills appeared in the national newspaper LeMonde. Among the women surveyed by Debusquat, 6.9% had experienced a serious health problem diagnosed by a doctor and related to the pill.
Finally, the women in Debusquat’s survey simply “refuse to take medication or hormones if [they’re] healthy.” Debusquat refers to these modern women as the “no-Pill generation.”
The no-Pill generation questions the principle of medicating contraception and rejects the idea that contraception must rhyme with side-effect risks… More and more, a woman wants to be in touch with her natural body, to respect it just as she wants to respect the environment.
Looking for Natural Alternatives
Fed up with the medical community’s downplaying of quality of life issues, grassroots efforts are employing modern technology to facilitate more natural methods of family planning.
Two apps have been developed to assist women in charting their monthly cycles, Kindara, developed in 2012, and, more recently, Natural Cycles. According to a Catholic News Agency article, the Natural Cycles app was developed in Switzerland by Elina Berglund, a nuclear physicist, and her husband.
The app works on symptom-thermal based system. Using mathematics and advanced technology, the app tracks a woman’s recorded daily temperature through an algorithm which determines fertility, making it a competitive alternative to hormonal birth control and contraception for women who would otherwise use them.
An independent study in Europe found that, when used correctly, the Natural Cycles app was as effective in spacing pregnancies as the pill without any of the side effects.
Contraceptives and the Dignity of Women
In stark contrast to the secular message, the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraceptives emanates from a deep love and respect for women. Documents such as St. Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem and Letter to Women, celebrate the “genius of women” that arises out of their natural ability to nurture life, not in unnatural efforts to suppress that ability. And it is the Church’s understanding of womanhood that has science on its side.
The well-being of women depends on creating a nurturing culture–one in which women are respected for their unique contributions, rather than exploited by a contraceptive mentality that exposes them to great risk and unhappiness. …Faith and the [scientific] evidence …all point in the same direction: The Church’s teachings against contraception…[protects] the well-being of all. –United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Life Matters: Contraceptives and Women’s Well-Being, 2012