Laura Stewart-Liberty shares her experiences of the Pill to celebrate World Contraception Day.
On September 26th we celebrated World Contraception Day – a global effort supported by various NGOs ‘to improve awareness of all contraceptive methods available and enable young people to make informed choices on their sexual and reproductive health’ (https://www.who.int/life-course/news/events/world-contraception-day-2018/en/). In the West, we are fortunate enough to have access to a wide range of contraceptive options, and in the UK our access to these resources is largely unrestricted and free thanks to the NHS. Contraception is so deeply woven into our society that we’re often guilty of taking it for granted. This World Contraception Day, let’s take stock.
The contraceptive pill has been available in the UK, albeit not without resistance, since 1961. (https://peopleshistorynhs.org/encyclopaedia/birth-control-on-the-nhs/), Over the last 60 years, it’s become an integral part of the lives of people with female anatomy, so much so that in certain circles, it’s more common than not to be on the Pill. Since its inception, the Pill has been closely linked to the emancipation of women, and rightly so. Bearing in mind the systemic Handmaid’s Tale-esque withdrawal of sexual health provisions and Planned Parenthood in Trump’s America, it’s important to remember that women’s autonomy over their reproductive and sexual health is crucial to their safety. It’s widely accepted that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop abortions; it just makes them dangerous and sometimes fatal.
By contrast, women and adolescent girls in developing countries, and even more so in crisis or conflict areas, often have little or no access to contraception or sexual health services. Plan International UK, who work to ensure sexual health needs are met, have outlined the elevated risks associated with adolescent pregnancies and a lack of access to sexual health services (https://plan-uk.org/blogs/10-things-you-should-know-for-world-contraception-day ). Whilst women’s safety and liberation are at the heart of such organisations’ intentions, it’s important to be mindful of the possibility of enforcing Western contraceptive norms, and fuelling the imperialist ‘White Saviour’ narrative. It’s incredible that women in the UK have relative bodily autonomy, but as feminists, it’s important to support women elsewhere calling for safe reproductive health services. It’s often not far from home that reproductive rights are restricted – just this week our neighbours in Ireland have been campaigning for access to safer abortions (https://www.rte.ie/news/dublin/2019/0928/1078837-abortion-march-in-dublin/ ).
Whilst the Pill has proved overwhelmingly popular in the UK, scientific studies emerge periodically, and sometimes sensationally, stating its possible side effects. These range from adverse impacts on women’s mental and physical health, to repercussions on wildlife and even male sperm count, as a result of the Pill’s synthetic hormones entering our waterways. Although these suggestions are often refuted and disputed, it is clear that we don’t know everything about female reproductive health or the hormonal contraception that so many of us take routinely every day. Only last year, it was revealed that the 7-day withdrawal bleed when taking the combined pill was initially recommended to appease the Pope, and apparently no such bleed is medically necessary (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/18/women-dont-need-to-bleed-why-many-more-of-us-are-giving-up-periods ). There are many questions to be answered surrounding the effects of contraception, but for now, the answer to a lot of them seems to be … maybe.
Two women I know under the age of 25 have had a small stroke as a result of taking the Pill. Equally, a friend of mine had a painful and heavy period that lasted an entire year as a result of her IUD (she seemed relieved when it came out in her menstrual cup). I went on the Pill aged 15, when as a newly sexually active teenager, my mother more or less marched me to the Doctor’s to pick up a prescription. It aggressively messed with my mood, so I tried a few different brands, all the while never feeling completely thrilled with the idea of being on intense daily medication at such a young age. My first period after coming off the pill was so agonisingly sore that I spent a night writhing in pain like a wounded beast. My bewildered then-boyfriend even asked if he should call an ambulance. It just didn’t feel normal.
There’s certainly nothing unique about my experiences, many people have contraception anecdotes, similar or worse. So why is the Pill so casually prescribed to women as an answer for any vaguely gynaecological medical issue? As Maisie Hill describes in her fantastic new book ‘Period Power’, the Pill is often prescribed to ‘treat’ PCOS, endometriosis, irregular periods, heavy periods and other issues, masking the symptoms without addressing the roots of the problem.
On the other side of the same coin, some who decide against hormonal contraception experience a certain degree of shaming, from peers as well as from health care professionals, as if this decision is obscenely reckless and couldn’t possibly be the result of an educated and informed personal choice. It’s an incredible privilege to have access to contraception, but we also have the privilege of access to crucial information that school PSHE classes and leaflets from sexual health clinics don’t provide. Thanks to people like Maisie Hill, we can now further educate ourselves about the female reproductive and endocrinal systems, and contraceptive options beyond the Pill, such as the possibilities of ‘fertility awareness’, or tracking symptoms including basal body temperature, cervical height, and cervical fluid (for those after much more information read the book, it’s great).
While the Pill is the perfect choice for some, the IUD might work better for others. Or the implant. Or fertility awareness. At times it might feel like it’s the Pill-way or the highway, but this doesn’t have to be the case. So, this World Contraception Day, if your current contraception is working for you, then great! If not, take some time to explore the information out there…
https://www.maisiehill.com/ author of Period Power
Period. By Emma Barnett https://www.amazon.co.uk/Period-Emma-Barnett/dp/0008308071
Emma Barnett speaking on Beyond Today podcast https://open.spotify.com/episode/5H1hU9Dl2Nk4qt32Zl3H2a?si=ZmtbUVflTrKh2r0pG4trmQ
Artwork by Alex Porter.