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June 20, 2012

Convenience trumps health in ongoing over-the-counter birth control debate

by: Carmen S. Scott

I was recently floored after reading an editorial about a group of doctors and reproductive rights activists who waged a lobbying war urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow over-the-counter oral contraception. The activists’ mission? To make oral contraceptives as convenient and affordable as alternative forms of birth control. Their pitch? That almost anyone can walk into a local drug store and purchase a value-pack of condoms for around $30, so why shouldn’t oral contraceptives, which are far more effective, be just as affordable and easy to get?

The editorial praised oral-contraceptives such as “the pill” for being safer than ever and belittled health concerns surrounding hormonal contraceptives by surmising that, because birth-control pills are available only by prescription, people have a misconception that they are dangerous drugs.

The “misconceptions” here are misplaced. Personal and political opinions aside, there are significant health concerns associated with hormonal birth controls, and, contrary to popular belief, they are not low-risk medications.

In 2011, an FDA-funded study of more than 800,000 women found that those who took drospirenone-containing birth-control pills such as Yaz®, Yasmin® and Ocella® were significantly more likely to develop venous thromboembolism (VTE) compared to women taking alternative forms of hormonal contraceptives. VTE can be life-threatening and adds to the already existing potentially dangerous side effects, including blood clots, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. The initial results of the FDA’s research suggest an approximately 1.5-fold increase in the risk of blood clots for women who use drospirenone-containing birth-control pills.

It upsets me to see a false sense of security presented in reference to hormonal birth control. Yaz and Yasmin, for example, have been cited in more than 1,000 lawsuits filed in the United States by patients who claim to have suffered serious injuries while taking the contraceptives.

Yes, I think over-the-counter hormonal contraceptives are a bad idea. However, I should add that I do believe access to hormonal contraceptives should be available when accompanied by ADEQUATE warnings and thorough discussions about potential risks with a physician.

The article did make one point I can agree with – birth-control prescriptions rarely require a medical diagnosis and are usually the woman’s choice. Therefore, she determines her need for a contraceptive and assesses the risks associated with her options. Ladies, I urge you to do your homework, and speak with your physician about the pros and cons associated with various kinds of hormonal contraceptives.

Convenience should never trump your health.