I have taken approximately 2,604 birth control pills in my life. Every night for almost seven years, the incessant alarm on my phone sounds at 10pm reminding me to grab my water bottle and swallow my pill. They are a consistent aspect of my life, which being on a first-name-basis friendship with the pharmacist at my local Walgreens epitomizes. They feel like a core part of me, determining when, where, and how I start to bleed.
I began taking them in the seventh grade to regulate my hormones in order to control acne. Contrary to popular belief, I am not alone in this, as many women use birth control to regulate their periods, lessen their cramps, and curtail the debilitating symptoms of PMS.
My experience with these pills has been tumultuous, to say the least. At first, I could not say enough about their strength and success. My skin was clear, I knew exactly when my periods were starting, and I felt so grown-up taking a pill from an aluminum case every day. But that honeymoon period (pun intended) did not last long. About six months after taking my first pill, I returned to the doctor that had initially prescribed them. The pills were changing who I was as a person. My entire family had noticed that the week before my period, I became withdrawn and extremely moody, crying multiple times a day. At first, this was attributed to a combination of cliché teenage mood swings and PMS. However, it wasn’t long until the characteristics that had defined my personality– a quick sense of humor, a happy-go-lucky attitude, and a passion for pulling pranks– had all but disappeared. To my shock, my doctor explained that this was not unusual or uncommon for women taking oral contraceptives. She told me we could experiment with different formulas of pills, but some bodies simply could not handle the pills. I was devastated.
I have tried eight different kinds of birth control pills with varying levels of success. Although an inconvenience in my life, I came to terms over the years with the pill being a core aspect of my womanhood. But after spending a semester enrolled in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies exploring why women deserve more than what society often expects them to accept, I have come to believe that we deserve more from our birth control products.
My experience is not unique. Women have learned to expect serious side-effects with any form of birth control. These side-effects include, but are not limited to: nausea, weight fluctuations, headaches, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Strangely, there is no outrage about this extreme failure in medication efficacy. In the US, 62% of women are currently on some form of birth control, yet any action being taken to improve it is underfunded and under-appreciated. Women accept less effective medications with more side effects because we, as a society, have learned to be comfortable with a lower standard of care for women.
Widespread apathy towards women’s health is extremely evident when one looks at a recent study experimenting with men’s birth control. In this study, 320 men were given birth control shots every night for eight weeks, in an effort to share out the responsibility of avoiding unwanted pregnancies. The sample considered men of varying backgrounds and levels of sexual activity. Despite potentially optimistic results, we will never see this study brought to fruition. It was halted due to the men experiencing “severe” side effects, such as mood swings and acne. Prior to the termination of the study, many women were hopeful that men’s birth control was finally a solution to their own undesirable experiences. However, the scientists would not allow men to endure these negative side effects for even eight weeks, when millions of women experience them for the entirety of their reproductive years.
This begs the question of why society is untroubled by the less than ideal standard of care given to women yet does not believe it is acceptable for men to tolerate comparable experiences. The lack of women in STEM careers, a reluctance to believe women’s symptom descriptions, and a greed-driven pharmaceutical industry are all connected to this double standard. The compounding of these three elements creates structural inequalities in healthcare that put women in physical danger and must be addressed sooner rather than later.
Women are underrepresented and undervalued in STEM careers. I am a two-year member of WashU’s Women in STEM Club, which aims to increase support and mentoring for women in STEM fields so that they can be better prepared to endure the journey ahead of them. As a college student aspiring to have a future career in the field of medicine, this cause directly affects the trajectory of my life. A 2013 study called “What's So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women's Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations” explored the environment faced by women in different careers. The results found that women in STEM have a statistically significant increased tendency to remove themselves from their fields. Due to careful consideration of any confounding variables, the study uncovered that the main cause for the mass exodus from upper STEM fields by women is not due to children, as many people tend to believe, but rather because of a “hostile work environment.”
This unsustainable work environment is evident at a well-known and iconic leader in the technology field, Google headquarters. In August of 2017, an executive engineer penned an internal memo to the entirety of Google named, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In this memo, the employee explains that women are biologically more predisposed to neuroticism, have less drive for higher status, and are more agreeable than assertive. He claims, “This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.” He later explains that accommodations should never be made for any employees on the basis of gender or race, as the only reason women and minority groups are underrepresented in tech is because of “biological disadvantages.” This memo went unaddressed by Google leadership for many days. Eventually, an apologetic email that contained plans for improvement was sent out to the company staff, but the damage was already done.
Women’s perspectives are integral to the creation of a successful product for women, yet the vast majority of scientists creating, testing, and marketing birth control products are men. I believe men cannot possibly comprehend the debilitating side effects of birth control pills, and therefore will not fight as hard as women would to find a solution. Because of this, it is essential that we encourage and support young women considering careers in science–which must occur early in a girl’s life. A 2004 research study done by Patricia VanLeuvan uncovered that there is a massive dip in interest in science careers of young girls between the seventh grade and the first year of high school. Careers that have better representation of women, such as medicine and biological sciences, experienced a lesser decrease in interest than less represented fields, such as engineering. This research shows that when one generation of women are inspired to pursue fields in STEM, a domino effect will result in the coming generations.
A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, one of my personal favorite shows, explored society’s shortcomings at recognizing and treating women’s self-reported symptoms . Dr. Miranda Bailey, a world-renowned and extremely respected Chief of Surgery, goes to a rival hospital’s ER and calmly explains that she believes she is having a heart attack. The ER doctors and cardiologists, all her friends and all white males, immediately begin questioning her history of OCD and anxiety, blaming these disorders as the reason for her symptoms. Chief Bailey responds with authority and confidence, relaying that heart attacks often manifest themselves differently in women, with symptoms such as shortness of breath without pain, anxiety attacks, and jaw and neck pain. Even with her expertise and obvious medical savviness, the other doctors refuse to believe her until her heart literally stops beating for two minutes. It is no wonder that doctors regularly disregard women’s self-reported symptoms, when Dr. Miranda Bailey, one of the most beloved doctors in the TV world, was not believed when she described her condition.
A study aptly named, “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” exposed the unfortunate truth that female patients are “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients.” This statement translates more tangibly to a nationwide average 49-minute wait time for men compared to a 65-minute wait time for women after reporting the same acute abdominal pain in an ER.
The lower standard of care given to women who choose to take birth control is ignored by those who have the power to improve it, specifically a greed-driven pharmaceutical industry. “Big pharma” makes billions of dollars every year off of birth control products, including pills, IUDs, vaginal rings, patches, and shots. These profit margins are only increased by women trying multiple versions of each product, as they are forced to do when side effects are too debilitating for them to function. These profits serve as positive reinforcement for big pharma to continue making imperfect products.
For many years, big pharma companies have gotten away with imperfect pills, knowing that they are the preferred choice of birth control for sexually active women. A recent study in the UK shows that these tides are turning. Bayer Healthcare, a leader in the market of contraception products, conducted a research study investigating women’s attitude towards varying forms of birth control. This research was confirmed by the Office of National Statistics, and found that 31% of women chose, at some point in their lives, to switch from the pill to Long Acting Reversible Contraception, or LARC’s. These women were totally unsatisfied with the side effects and overall effectiveness of the pill and decided that their bodies and minds deserved better.
Society has taught women to expect a lower standard of care from all healthcare providers, ranging from doctors to CEO’s of pharmaceutical companies. This custom is dangerous for the physical and mental well-being of women, which further effects all aspects of society. Therefore, it is time that we, as women, demand more for ourselves. We deserve birth control that does its job with no side effects. We deserve to be heard when we go to the Emergency Room asking for help. We deserve to be represented in fields that make decisions about our health. We deserve (birth) control.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Grey’s Anatomy, season 14, episode 11, ABC, 1 Feb. 2018. https://www.hulu.com/watch/1215330.
Fassler, Joe. “How Doctors Take Women's Pain Less Seriously.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/emergency-room-wait-times-sexism/410515/.
Glass, Jennifer L., et al. “What's So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women's Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations.” Social Forces, vol. 92, no. 2, 2013, pp. 723–756. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43287810.
Haelle, Tara. “Does Some Birth Control Raise Depression Risk? That's Complicated.” NPR, NPR, 9 Oct. 2016, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/10/09/497087838/does-some-birth-control-raise-depression-risk-thats-complicated.
JV. “Side Effects Are OK for Women's Birth Control - but Not for Men's?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 1 Nov. 2016, college.usatoday.com/2016/11/01/male-birth-control-side-effects-come-on/.
Planned Parenthood. “Birth Control Methods & Options | Types of Birth Control.” Planned Parenthood, National - PPFA, www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control.
VanLeuvan, Patricia. “Young Women's Science/Mathematics Career Goals from Seventh Grade to High School Graduation.” The Journal of Educational Research, vol. 97, no. 5, 2004, pp. 248–267. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27548037.
Sarah is currently a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, studying Psychological and Brain Sciences. She strives to one day incorporate her passion for women's health into a career in the medical field.