New, Critical Conversation Brewing on Birth-Control Usage in the U.S.

From scientific studies to star athlete Megan Henry in the pages of Vanity Fair, the harmful consequences of contraception usage are increasingly being discussed in the public square.

Megan Henry
Megan Henry (photo: Facebook/MeganHenryAthlete)

WASHINGTON — Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which said laws making contraception illegal were unconstitutional, the use of birth control among Americans has become an epidemic: More than 90% of the adult population uses some form of birth control, a figure that includes most self-described Catholics. In fact, a recent Pew Research survey reveals that 56% of U.S. Catholics believe the Church should change teaching to accept the use of birth control.

For decades, supporters of birth-control use have used data like this to argue that the Church should alter its position on contraception. However, new research reveals a dark side to using birth control, sparking public discussions featuring star athlete Megan Henry and entertainment personality Ricki Lake that center not on the alleged benefits of contraception, but on the harm women can do to themselves by using these products.

A recent study in India, for example, found that long-term use of oral contraception leaves women with a chance of breast cancer 9.5 times that of women who don't use oral contraception.

Studies in the U.S. have also found a correlation between oral contraception and breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, although the institute says these studies indicate contraception use only “appears to slightly increase the risk of breast cancer, especially among younger women.”  

Birth control has also come under media scrutiny in America, and not just from so-called “fringe” voices. Vanity Fair magazine recently published a 10,000-word profile on the harmful consequences of NuvaRing, a form of contraception requiring vaginal insertion. The article linked the birth-control device to a number of deaths.

Last month, Merck Pharmaceuticals, the producer of NuvaRing, offered a $100-million settlement to the nearly 4,000 people involved in a class-action lawsuit against allegedly inferior warnings on the dangers of NuvaRing. Among other stipulations, the settlement concerning NuvaRing must be accepted by 95% of claimants. Otherwise, the lawsuit will end, and Merck will be free of any legal damages.

Merck's proposed settlement is a fraction of the size of the ones made by Bayer because of claims filed against the company over its Yaz/Yasmin product. As of last year, settlements to those who used these oral contraceptives amounted to $1.6 billion.


Megan Henry’s Story

The Vanity Fair essay has garnered a great deal of attention and has received more than 38,000 “likes” on the magazine’s Facebook page. The story of Megan Henry, an “elite Army athlete” and winter Olympic hopeful who was unable to compete in Sochi because she suffered “rampant” blood clots as a result of using NuvaRing, is featured prominently in the article. Henry is unreserved in her condemnation of the product and the company that produces it.

“Merck is getting away with murder,” Henry told the Register. She believes the company “should have been more honest with the dangers of NuvaRing, specifically by providing warning that represented the increased risk [of using the product] compared to other second- and third-generation birth controls.” 

Henry, who says her use of NuvaRing will result in major health risks if she gets pregnant, joined the class-action lawsuit against Merck after it devastated her body in 2012. She also said “it is frightening” to think of the dangers faced by women because “doctors are also unaware” of the consequences of using NuvaRing.

According to the NuvaRing website (graphic-content warning), the internally inserted device is supposed to remain inserted for three weeks at a time. The website says side effects include blood clots, stroke or heart attack, and among the most common side effects are infections, headache, weight gain and nausea.

Merck spokeswoman Lainie Keller says the company “stand[s] behind the research that supported the approval of NuvaRing and our continued work to monitor the safety of the medicine.” Keller told the Register that, as part of the settlement, “Merck denies fault.”

Those who believe they are victims of the product, like Henry, find Merck’s response inadequate. Henry says the amount of the settlement was far smaller than what was deserved for those who have suffered at the hands of NuvaRing. “They have offered $75,000 to families who lost a loved one. A price simply cannot be put on life, and if it could, $75,000 would be far from it.”

“The FDA should make them beef up their warning label, so women will think twice about using their product,” she added.


Increased Media Attention

According to pro-life activist and registered nurse Jill Stanek, the Merck lawsuit is just the latest evidence about the harmful effects of contraception usage.

“In 2005, the World Health Organization classified the morning-after pill as a Class 1 carcinogen — as dangerous as cigarette smoke and asbestos,” Stanek said. “With all of the studies showing links between oral contraception and greater chances of glaucoma, heart risk and breast-cancer risk, it's amazing any women use them. And the NuvaRing lawsuit shows how dangerous hormonal contraception is.”

“The American people are belatedly finding out from the mainstream media just how far we've gone off the path of proper care of the bodies of women,” stated Stanek. She said media attention to the issue, as well prominent political attention to issues like the HHS contraception mandate, has created “a perfect storm for greater knowledge by women about why they should use better wisdom and responsibility in their sexual practices.”

Part of the increased media attention is coming from an unlikely source — former talk-show host and Hairspray star Ricki Lake. Lake is involved with a new documentary on the harms of hormonal contraception. Lake and her director, Abby Epstein, say the goal of their documentary is simple: to “wake women up to the unexposed side effects” of contraceptives. According to Lake and Epstein, “in the 50 years since its release, the birth-control pill has become synonymous with women’s liberation and has been thought of as some sort of miracle drug.”

“But now, it’s making women sick, and so our goal with this film is to wake women up to the unexposed side effects of these powerful medications and the unforeseen consequences of repressing women’s natural cycles.”

According to Katie Yoder of the Media Research Center’s Culture & Media Institute, there is a “new message” about contraception. Yoder says it is simple: “Contraception isn't improving women's lives, but instead threatening their lives. Vanity Fair and Ricki Lake reflect a shift in the media’s praise for women ‘controlling their own bodies.’”

Yoder says that the political debate triggered by the HHS contraception mandate is focusing national attention on the issue.

“Now is the perfect time to bring a new discussion of contraception to the table,” she said. “Americans have a renewed interest in both contraception and religious freedom because of the HHS mandate. A December 2013 poll by the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom showed 59% of likely voters oppose forcing employers to buy insurance covering contraceptives and abortifacients.”


The Moral Dimension

Even with increasingly clear evidence of the damaging consequences of using birth control, those seeking to decrease usage of the product are facing an uphill climb. Across the country, funding exists for various forms of contraception at public colleges, and several states and the U.S. federal government require contraception and abortifacients in health-insurance coverage. Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, receives hundreds of millions of dollars annually from various governments, some of which goes to providing contraception.

Just as alarming to many has been the approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, last year, to allow Plan B One-Step without a prescription. More recently, the FDA said generic forms of Plan B could be sold without a prescription to women of all ages.

According to Damon Owens, the executive director of the Theology of the Body Institute, a persuasive case against contraception can’t rely solely on health concerns. Rather, as the Catholic Church teaches, it must also incorporate a moral dimension.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that contraception is “intrinsically evil,” because by its nature it contradicts both the possibility of the generation of life and the mutual self-giving between a husband and wife for which human sexuality is intended (2370).

“What appear as simple moral divides in the culture wars are really fundamental conflicts about the meaning of existence and life,” Owens told the Register. “Abortion, contraception, divorce, fornication and euthanasia are just a few examples of newly accepted practices that are rooted in a view that we exist for our own sake.”

“People choose them because they think they will bring happiness,” said Owens. “The truth that they can never bring us the joy we long for is too hard for some to bear. This truth is not a Christian imposition. It is a reality for each of us to encounter and choose.”

Register correspondent Dustin Siggins writes from Washington.