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Columns

Side Effects

The gendered inequality of birth control

By Nian Hu, Crimson Staff Writer

Female birth control has been available for many years now, beginning with the hormonal birth control pill that Margaret Sanger pioneered in the 1950s. Nowadays, birth control comes in a variety of forms, including implants, patches, shots, and intrauterine devices to name only a few. More than 99 percent of sexually experienced women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States have used at least one contraceptive method, and the majority of current contraceptive users rely on hormonal methods.

Hormonal male birth control, on the other hand, is not yet available. There is no pill that men can take every day in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Women are still expected to assume sole responsibility for not getting pregnant. This expectation, unfortunately, is nothing new. Single mothers are stigmatized whereas the men who left them are not; teenage girls are chided for “getting themselves pregnant” as though impregnation is something that you can do to yourself; a heterosexual couple engaging in risky sex may end up with an unwanted pregnancy, but only the woman will be shamed and potentially even forced to surrender control of her body for nine months in accordance to restrictive abortion laws.

Thankfully, scientists have recently begun developing a male birth control shot. It is nearly 95 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, and it was heralded as a breakthrough for science and for gender equality. Women have long borne the sole burden for preventing pregnancy; now, with this study, men could assume a greater share of the responsibility.

However, the study on male birth control has been cut short. Apparently, several men in the study reported negative side effects, such as mood swings, an altered libido, and acne. As a result, following the recommendation of an external safety review committee, the hormone injections were terminated early. Even though less than five percent of the men in the study reported these negative side effects and 75 percent of them said that they would be willing to try it again, the researchers determined that the “potential risks of this hormonal combination for male contraception” may possibly “outweigh the potential benefits.”

Mood swings, an altered libido, and acne: These are only some of the many side effects that millions of women have put up with for decades. Approximately 12 million women in the United States are on the hormonal birth control pill, and women who are on the pill are 23 to 34 percent more likely to experience depression and take antidepressants. Adolescent girls in particular are more likely to experience depression when they take oral contraceptives.

Birth control pills also often cause users to experience weight gain, acne, decreased libido, breast pain, yeast infections, headaches, nausea, and even more serious side effects such as blurred vision, chest pain, and blood clots. Other forms of birth control may lead to additional side effects on top of the hormone-induced ones. For example, the NuvaRing can lead to vaginal tissue irritation and painful menstruation, and the intrauterine device (IUD) can lead to ovarian cysts, heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding, and even sepsis and uterus perforation.

And these are side effects that women have been experiencing since the 1950s and 1960s. When hormonal birth control was first tested on poor Puerto Rican women, a whopping 17 percent of women experienced serious side effects such as nausea and vomiting, and three women even died over the course of the study. Nevertheless, researchers approved the pill for the general population. The male researchers "believed that many of the complaints were psychosomatic," and felt that problems such as nausea "were minor compared to the...benefits of the drug."

Even to this day, doctors continue to describe the side effects of female birth control as “not serious.” And yet, the exact same side effects of male birth control were considered serious enough to merit ending a scientific study early. Women who experience severe depression as a result of their birth control are encouraged by doctors to “not be alarmed” and “not be deterred from taking the pill.” But the men who experienced depression as a result of their birth control found their fears and discomfort validated and were encouraged to stop using birth control.

Why are women expected to endure for decades side effects that men are not even expected to endure for the course of a 3-year long scientific study? The standards by which we measure male and female discomfort are different, and always have been. Male pain is consistently rated as more important or urgent than female pain. Female pain is often perceived as constructed or exaggerated; as a result, women are usually treated less aggressively in the healthcare system. Men wait an average of 49 minutes for receiving treatment for acute abdominal pain, but women wait an average of 65 for the same thing.

Women’s experiences are consistently invalidated, disbelieved, or dismissed—from their complaints of pain in hospitals, to their allegations of rape and domestic abuse, to their grievances about negative side effects from birth control. Side effects from birth control are real, uncomfortable, and often serious—it is only unfortunate that it took a group of men to complain for researchers to start looking into ways to reduce these side effects.

The birth control pill has played an instrumental role in women’s liberation. But it’s time for us to demand something better. It’s time for women to be treated with the same respect and dignity that men are afforded, and for women’s experiences to be validated and believed the same way men’s are. If time, research, and funding are going to be devoted to minimizing the side effects of male contraceptives, then equal amounts of time and resources need to be dedicated to reducing the side effects of female contraceptives. That would be a small step, but a consequential one nevertheless, toward gender parity.


Nian Hu, ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator living in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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