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Fifty Years of Evidence Say the Pill is Safe

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 3 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Pill Safety Contraceptive Pill Scare

Statistics show that every time there is a pill scare, often made the most of in the popular press, the birth rate shows a peak nine months later. May 9 2010 was the official fiftieth anniversary of when the contraceptive pill first became available, so should we still be worried about its safety?

The Pill’s Safety Record

Around 3.5 million women take the pill just in the UK – worldwide is something close to 100 million. Although it is one of the few medicines routinely taken by people who are not ill, the pill has an amazing safety record. The benefits that it brings – allowing women and couples to control their fertility and the size of their families – by far outweigh the relatively tiny number of women whose health is jeopardised by taking the pill.

The Royal College of GPs in the UK brought out a report last year that amassed all the evidence on pill safety and showed that the pill reduces the risk of cancer by 12 per cent overall. Doctors know that it does increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis and heart attacks and strokes in women who have other serious risk factors, which is why weight and blood pressure are checked before the pill is prescribed. Those women who are at risk are advised not to take the pill. It is also important to remember that many of the scares over the link between the pill and strokes come from the early days of the pill, when the tablets contained much higher concentrations of oestrogen and progesterone.

The History of the Pill

It is hard now to imagine a time without the contraceptive pill but things were very different in the 1950s, in the decade before the pill became available. Couples often had 6 children or more, many women died having back street abortions if they got pregnant accidentally and scores of young mothers were separated from their newborns, who were whisked away for adoption. Being a single mum was a major crime in the society of the time, with teenage girls and even women in their 20s being cast out by their parents and blacklisted by their friends if they fell pregnant without being married.

Limited Pill Usage at First

When the pill did become available in the 1960s, it wasn’t as easy to get as it is today. Only married women were allowed to have it, which sort of defeated most of its benefits, and women often bought fake wedding rings and just lied about their marital status to be able to take it. Even so, by the end of the 1960s, the pill was only being used regularly by about 10% of women. That all changed in 1974 when the government of the day decided that the pill should be free – before that women had to pay a fairly hefty price for each prescription.

Sociologists debate whether the pill caused the sexual revolution, or was a result of it but during the 1970s and 1980s, women began to marry later, take their jobs and careers more seriously, and were becoming financially and sexually independent.

Does the Pill Affect Fertility?

Many of the scares claim this but the pill itself does not affect fertility. If you take the pill, your underlying fertility is not affected. The trouble is that fertility does fluctuate, particularly with age, so it is easy to see how this myth has arisen. A woman taking the pill for 10 years might then find it difficult to get pregnant – but only because her natural fertility level has declined with age, not due to pill taking.

Many women in the 1970s and 1980s who put off having children did find that, when they felt ready to get pregnant in their late 30s, nothing happened. Many have then gone on to use assisted fertility techniques and have started families in their early 40s.

The Pill and STDs

The pill has increased in popularity and still remains a popular method of contraception. It is very efficient at preventing pregnancy and at controlling heavy periods but the pill does have one disadvantage compared to barrier methods of contraception such as condoms – it cannot protect you against sexually transmitted diseases. For the young, who are likely to have multiple partners, it cannot prevent transmission of HIV, gonorrhoea, Chlamydia or any other infection that is passed on through sex but it can easily be used in combination with the condoms that can.

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