Unveiling The Curtain On Contraceptives - Why is there Blindness when it Comes to Women’s health?

Artwork by Rhea Micallef-Gavin

‘The Pill’

Two words loaded with meaning.

What does the phrase ‘The Pill’ conjure up for you? Arguably one of the most influential medical developments in history, the autonomy provided for women has transformed many generations for the better. The power in which this drug holds for society has ultimately enabled it to become internationally recognisable from the simple two-word title. The Pill.

The contraceptive pill has enabled women to become sexually liberated and - partnered with legalised and safe abortions - has allowed for progressive advancement within the campaign for women’s rights. Yet, while the pill has provided this freedom for many women, the lack of information and awareness into the side effects of oral contraception on women’s bodies represents a larger issue within the medical field: why is there still an absence of awareness when it comes to women’s health?

The Pill (in one of its many earlier forms) was developed in the 1950s and originally presented as ‘cycle control’ instead of contraception due to the social, legal and political taboos attached with such a stigmatised subject. Yet, despite the desperate need for this ‘magic pill’, the reason that it took so long to produce was not science but financial backing into research for women. It took independent wealthy benefactors to provide the funding for research to create the pill as we know it today. This lack of funding for research into issues that predominantly affect women is a greater indication of the lack of awareness that surprisingly still shrouds conditions such as Endometriosis and PCOS.

Currently, the hormonal contraception that is available contains synthetic versions of Oestrogen and Progesterone. These hormones can work very well in preventing an unwanted pregnancy and for many women over the world, the great number of positives that being on the pill brings far outweighs any possible side effects. However, it is perhaps the uncertainty of who will develop certain side effects and to what extreme subsequent side effects may affect an individual, that now needs to be researched and made more transparent to women, allowing for many more informed choices.

There may be physiological processes, brain functioning and wider sociological implications that the pill could contribute negatively to. Women may find themselves dealing with mental health issues yet have no understanding as to why they are feeling a certain way when they are on the pill. With added confusion and dismissal from doctors over ‘women’s issues’ a feeling of overwhelming confusion ultimately causes a lot of women to feel isolated and alone while on their journey with contraception. Dr Michael Craig, clinical lead and consultant psychiatrist at the National Female Hormone Clinic supports the notion that ‘There is no doubt that there is a subgroup of women who are more vulnerable to both their own hormones and the synthetic ones contained in the pill. However, what we don’t know is how big this group of women is or what’s different about them – it’s still controversial.’

My relationship with the pill is tumultuous. After struggling with painful periods, I visited the doctor’s office and was faced with lots of different options of pills promised to ease the pains. Seeming too good to be true I could not believe that after struggling with period pains for most of my life I was finally being given an option to stop this pain. Yet, after a year of being on the pill I developed a range of symptoms resulting in me being hospitalised and visiting several specialists across different hospitals. After seeing numerous neurologists and receiving multiple diagnoses I gradually was getting more unwell and unable to cope with daily life, yet there was no real explanation as to what had caused my symptoms. Out of desperation, I decided to try and come off the pill to see if it would make any difference and to my surprise, month by month since I had come off the pill my symptoms improved and became less frequent. When I had visited numerous doctors not one of them had mentioned that the pill would or could have contributed or exacerbated my condition. So why then when I came off did my symptoms improve? I felt extremely alone during this journey and particularly isolated due to the lack of a definite diagnosis. However, after talking to other women, I found out that this story was often a shared experience and particularly common within women who had tried going on the pill at some point – most of them had shared a story like mine at a period in their lives.

With growing anger and frustration, I was stunned by the lack of awareness within the medical field and society around the subject of negative side effects of the pill. The lack of open and honest conversation regarding this topic may cause other women, like myself, to feel pushed aside by medical professionals when they disclose negative symptoms that have been brought on by the pill and from personal experience I know that this can be challenging to cope with, especially dealing with feelings of not being heard or taken seriously by doctors.

Many people will not know how a certain combination of contraception will affect them or what side effects they may acquire by being on the pill. Despite over 3 million women being on the pill in the UK alone, the stigma around the conversation regarding negative side effects of the pill remains prevalent, with women’s voices continuously being silenced. Those who express negative side effects are dismissed and accused of conforming to the constraints of the historically oppressive patriarchy - by talking negatively about the pill people assume that women are pushing back the emancipation of women.

While the pill has allowed women to progress towards liberation, the fact that it is difficult to secure funding for research which looks at the negative effects of contraception suggests that within the medical industry women are still marginalised with their health and pain being pushed to the back of the queue. As Sandi Toksvig writes ‘Women have not only been excluded from textbooks, but also from clinical trials. Studies estimate that up to 85 per cent of animals used in early-stage biomedical research are male, and when females are included, scientists don’t bother themselves with analysing sex differences. Really, we have no idea how most drugs affect women, and consequently, women are 60 per cent more likely to have an adverse reaction to prescription drugs than men.’ The absence of women from medical trials sets the precedent for the treatment of female medical issues today. Why in 2021 are we still campaigning to get relevant funding for research towards diagnoses that affect women?

The Pill is loaded with issues surrounding feminism, religion, and politics. The pill is not just a medication, it is representative of society. Therefore, as far as the researchers are concerned ‘hormonal contraception works insofar as you don’t get pregnant if you take it properly, so there is little impetus to push things forward. It’s not news that the contraceptive pill causes mood changes.’ Dr Craig clearly states that within the medical field the side effects were deemed acceptable for a medication that was so ground-breaking.

However, what was acceptable decades ago is not acceptable today.

We owe it to all our sisters, mothers, daughters, and future generations of women to campaign for more funding for research into the pill and the side effects.

‘The Pill.’

Let us unveil the curtain on the side effects and armour women with the awareness and understanding to make educated choices. We must do better for our women.

Article Emma Randall