Access to birth control has been a primary issue in feminism for the past few decades. Until 1969, the birth control pill as a method of contraception was illegal in Canada. Since it’s been on the market, The Pill has been credited with fueling the women’s movement, allowing women to pursue careers, spawning the “free love” era of the 1970s, and decreasing the number of children born per family.
Despite continued accessibility to The Pill, there can still be issues around cost, convenience, and scheduling doctor’s appointments. These are the reasons the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have recommended for making The Pill an over the counter drug.
ACOG is the leading group of physicians providing healthcare for women in the United States. They are a private, non-profit organization with approximately 56, 000 members. ACOG believes that having The Pill available over the counter will decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, will prevent abortion, and could help reduce the approximate $11 billion tax costs incurred annually from unintended pregnancies.
While ACOG recognizes the risks associated with over the counter drugs, the organization believes the benefits outweigh the negatives. They point out that other over the counter drugs, like aspirin, also contain risks but that these drugs are nonetheless easily accessible.
In a country like Canada, whose taxpayers cover healthcare costs, making The Pill available as an over the counter drug would reduce the spending on things like doctor’s appointments. It would also make The Pill more accessible given the shortage of doctors and the unavailability for appointments.
However, an initiative like this should be proceeded with caution. ACOG was also overwhelmingly optimistic about the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. The link between the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer was the reason behind the vaccine. Prevent HPV, prevent cervical cancer. The organization took the same stance with the vaccine as with the birth control pill: the benefits outweighed the risks. But did they?
Two female Canadian scientists, Chris Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, recently released statements warning of the dangers associated with side effects related to HPV vaccines. The most common side effects are dizziness, headaches, and nausea, but there are more extreme side effects, like seizures and death. Shaw and Lucija admit that more research is needed and that their findings are not conclusive. Their main concern is that the potential for adverse reactions is not being taken seriously.
There have been dozens of reports of deaths and adverse effects since the two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, have been on the market. Despite research and statistics showing that more side effects are reported from these vaccines than with most other vaccines, the manufacturers continue to downplay the seriousness of the adverse effects. Just take a look at either brand’s website and you won’t find any of the serious side effects listed. Instead the sites direct you to “ask your healthcare provider”.
What the HPV vaccines have in common with The Pill is the downplaying of serious side effects. There is always the argument that the benefits outweigh the risks. The result is a lack of informed consent. There have been many instances of women who went off The Pill because of side effects they were not informed of. One of the most common responses is depression, which is often referred to as a minor side effect when it comes to The Pill.
Depression is not a minor side effect. Depression itself can cause sleep problems, increased anxiety and aggression, changes in appetite, concentration problems, and unexplained aches and pains. These symptoms can be debilitating and can have long term repercussions.
In ACOG’s recent press release for making The Pill available over the counter, there are several arguments made in the defence of The Pill’s safety for women. ACOG cites studies that have shown women can self-screen for contraindications. The organization also argues that women will continue to visit their doctors for health screenings even if they can get The Pill over the counter.
What ACOG doesn’t talk about is informed consent. All of their arguments address treating side effects and health concerns after they arise. ACOG focuses largely on the benefits but don’t even discuss the risks.
With so much misinformation available via internet, from peers, and even from health professionals, it is important for women to have access to balanced information. Things like the birth control pill and the HPV vaccine can absolutely be liberating for women. However, when there is a lack of information about the risks, this liberation sometimes comes at a cost. With so many women protesting for access to contraceptives throughout the past 50 decades, the cry for access to information has unfortunately been muffled.