A bitter pill


This week’s news has yet another report of an otherwise young and healthy women who died needlessly. The cause of death, a blood clot. And the likely reason is a medication she was taking. And the sad part is that this type of medication kills 2 New Zealand women on average every year from blood clots. The medication was the birth control pill, Estelle, although every type and brand of combined oral contraceptive pill raises the chances of venous thromboembolim, or blood clots.

Every medication has its risks, risk factors, and contraindications. When prescribing, the doctor has the take that into account, weighing it against the severity of the disease being treated. So these deaths are particularly disturbing as oral contraceptives are prescribed mostly to healthy women. In the case from this week, the doctors involved were found to have breached the health code, in prescribing this contraceptive to the woman without warning her of the risks, including a personal history that demonstrated a very high risk of venous thromboembolim, or blood clots.

Some of the other women who die from blood clots, have similar contraindications. Most of them have some of the risk factors. But disturbingly, some of the women who die from blood clots have no known risk factors.

All contraceptive medications and devices that contain oestrogen raise the risk of dying from blood clots. Depending on the pill or device, the risks are raised by 3 to 8 times. And for every women that dies, there is a larger number who survive, but have long term effects from the blood clot. And it’s not the only risk. Users also have higher rates of breast and cervical cancer. The combined oral contraceptive pill is actually classified as a group 1 human carcinogen by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), meaning that there is sufficient evidence that this chemical causes cancer in humans.

It’s more common side effects don’t paint a pretty picture either, nausea, headaches, weight gain, mood change, tiredness and breast tenderness. The side effects are one of the most common reasons that women stop taking the pill.

So why would we consider this contraceptive so essential for women, when it’s obviously not good for them. The risks of contraceptives are usually weighed against the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. This is a false comparison and an insult to women. It implies that women cannot stop themselves from getting pregnant without the pill. There are good alternatives, especially with modern natural fertility regulation, which is highly effective, and has no chemicals. But at the heart of the matter is an attitude which permeates our society from the bedroom, to the doctor’s office, right up to the halls of parliament. It’s the idea that women should be available for the sexual pleasure of men, and that’s considered so important that the deaths of a few women are considered an acceptable price to pay.



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