The Pill: whose pain matters?

Nora Redmond 31 August 2021

In April of this year, health services around the world suspended AstraZeneca vaccines for persons under the age of thirty due to the risk of blood clotting. Within days, the long-awaited rollout of the vaccine was momentarily halted for this risk alone. By contrast, the contraceptive pill – which entails a higher risk of clotting – is still issued to women every minute.

The risk of blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine was confirmed by the European Medicines Agency to be 1 in 100,000. Compared to this minimal rate of clotting, the risk for the almost 900 million people worldwide who rely on hormonal contraceptives is 1 in 1,000. Academics and gynaecologists have since admitted that there is much potential to improve the pill. However, without access to proper funding and the interest of national health services, the research needed is not being conducted.

Considering the vast number of people, mainly women, who rely on the pill, few efforts have been made to increase the safety of this medication for its users. The hormonal pill is prescribed for diseases including endometriosis and disorders which affect the gastrointestinal system, as well as being used as a form of contraception and to regulate menstruation. Whether the pill is being used to combat an illness or to prevent pregnancy, its users deserve investment towards its advancement and the creation of more safe alternatives.

The stigma surrounding female sexuality is ever prevalent. Despite knowledge of the harmful side effects of women’s contraceptives, the same pill with the same risk is continuously issued. With contraceptive budgets being reduced by 13% between the years 2015 and 2018, the message to women is clear: your healthcare is not valued.

Another shameful reminder of the daily risks hormonal pill users must face is the absence of any form of a male contraceptive pill. At present, there are only two official contraceptive methods for men: condoms and vasectomy. For women, there are more than twelve forms available. Yet still, there appears to be no sign of a pill for men being introduced in the near future. The promise of such a form of birth control has been promised for years. In 2016, the World Health Organisation found a hormone-based injection with the aim of lowering sperm count to be almost 100% effective as a form of birth control. Despite its proven success, the Stage II trial was cancelled due to concerns of possible side effects.

The majority of men involved in the trial agreed that they would purchase this birth control if it were made available. However, as a result of complaints about acne and mood swings from other male participants, the study aiming for progress in the field of male contraception was cut short. Those who use the hormonal birth pill or menstruate experience these exact symptoms every month. It seems that women’s pain matters less than men’s.

The work towards equal contraception continues. Recent developments have included the University of Dundee’s announcement this Tuesday of a $1.7 million award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund further research into developing a contraceptive drug for men. If the drug were successful in reaching the first stages of development, this would mark a milestone in the field of birth control.

For the foreseeable future, the financial, emotional and physical burden of the pill is going to fall on women. People of marginalised genders have for decades accepted the risks associated with their contraception to gain autonomy over their sexual and reproductive health. This right should not come with threats.

When concerns were raised over minimal blood clotting about the AstraZeneca vaccine, its rollout was interrupted within days. When men complained of acne and mood swings after taking an almost 100% effective form of birth control, its production was cancelled. After sixty years of an increase in health problems experienced by hormonal pill takers, little has been done to improve it. Birth control is not a women’s issue; it is a men’s one too, and it is time for pharmaceutical companies and wider society to acknowledge this. For gender equality to be achieved, contraceptive equality is needed.