Listen to Women—Birth Control’s Side Effects Are Real

Published April 16, 2024


For over 60 years, hormonal birth control has been sold as a quick fix for acne, reproductive health conditions, pregnancy prevention, or simply the inconvenience of periods. Yet women are beginning to recognize the unsoundness of medical professionals’ habit of prescribing hormonal birth control to address seemingly everything related to their health.

Due in large part to social media, young women in particular are speaking out about their negative experiences taking these drugs. A recent piece in the Washington Post accused these women of spreading “misinformation” and “misleading…a vulnerable demographic.” It even went so far as to disregard one woman’s lived negative experience with hormonal birth control simply because she “is not a licensed medical specialist.” In contrast, the authors prominently feature a male OB/GYN and reproductive rights advocate’s favorable opinion on birth control. Throughout his comments, he generally dismisses the experiences of women who’ve decided to discontinue its use. It seems women’s voices matter until they begin to question the mainstream narrative on reproductive health care.

The overwhelming backlash to the article, especially on social media and among younger women, speaks volumes. The Washington Post limited comments on its Instagram post due to the flood of moving personal stories from women challenging the piece. Women directly harmed by hormonal birth control spoke out against the misrepresentation of their concerns. As one naturopathic doctor’s Instagram post described, “It’s not that women are rejecting the pill, they are rejecting a medical system that has decided women don’t deserve quality care because they can just be put on the pill.”

While the cultural shift on hormonal birth control may be a recent phenomenon, the harms and dangers associated with these drugs have been known for years.

In 2019, a citizen petition to the Food and Drug Administration argued that the drugs should include black box warnings, which are prominently displayed lists of adverse risks and side effects on the labeling. The petition identified a laundry list of possible risks: breast cancer, cervical cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, depression, and venous thrombosis and cardiovascular events. Even the Washington Post article admitted medical professionals are worried about the industry’s “long-standing lack of transparency about some of the serious but rare side effects.”

But the risks and side effects of hormonal birth control aren’t as “rare” as they’re made out to be. Both the mental health effects and breast and cervical cancer risks associated with hormonal birth control use are much more prevalent than most users likely realize—and because both the brains and breasts of adolescent girls are in a significant period of development, the risks are significantly higher for teens placed on birth control. Indeed, according to the National Institutes of Health, hormonal birth control use increases the risk breast cancer by 20 percent. One Clemson University researcher found that, due to misleading risk communication from pharmaceutical companies, many women mistakenly assume they are not at risk for blood clots from birth control use unless they smoke or are overweight. In reality, between 300 and 400 women of all shapes and sizes, smoking and non-smoking, die every year from blood clots caused by birth control.

While many of the women sharing their experiences with birth control online have not experienced a cancer diagnosis or blood clot, they have suffered other negative consequences. Taking birth control from an early age medically suppresses a woman’s natural cycles for decades. The tendency of medical professionals to over-prescribe birth control because of acne, irregular periods, or other reasons masks serious reproductive conditions like endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, adenomyosis, and fibroids.

These concerns about the harms of hormonal birth control are compounded by the FDA‘s recent approval of Opill, an over-the-counter, progestin-only oral contraceptive. Now that the product has finally hit American pharmacy shelves, there is little to stop women and girls across the country from obtaining these risky drugs without a doctor or parent to advise them. They will be able to purchase and take the pill without any information—other than a huge package insert with tiny print that most ignore—about the very real and serious side effects of their birth control. Once again, the medical profession has sacrificed women’s health at the altar of a quick-fix medication.

To be clear, the trend of women speaking up about the harms of birth control on social media is not about banning hormonal birth control. It is simply about promoting women’s health and the right of women to make informed decisions. Too many in the media and in medicine treat women who dare to speak out and share their negative experiences with derision. Women who’ve suffered on birth control have been gaslighted enough as it is. They should be believed and met with applause for sharing their experiences with these widely prescribed and risky drugs. That is the approach to reproductive health women deserve.

Natalie Dodson is a Policy Analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she works on a range of initiatives focusing on sexuality, gender ideology, religious liberty, health care rights of conscience, abortion, and nondiscrimination in EPPC’s HHS Accountability Project.

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