In light of recent changes to guidelines given to women taking the contraceptive pill, Comment’s Abby Spreadborough criticises the roles of both the NHS and the Catholic Church in fueling previous misinformation

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For many women across the UK this week it feels as though the past few years or months of their lives have been a lie. The NHS finally changed its guidance on the birth control pill meaning that the pill-free week is no longer a requirement as there is no medical reason for it. Consequently, I and millions of other women have had to endure months, if not years, of unnecessary periods and all the side effects that come with it every month. From the cramps to the mood swings and the general inconvenience that was deemed as essential by nurses and doctors in surgeries up and down the country, women have been through it all. All of this to appease a ‘higher power.’

When the pill was developed in the 1950s, before finally being released in 1961 in the UK, scientist John Rock was leading the medical trials. A devout Catholic himself, he believed that the Pope, as well as Catholics across the world, would be more likely to accept the pill if it simulated a period each month. In his opinion it would make the process more natural, it would appear like an extension of the natural rhythm method, the only form of contraception approved by the Church. It involved a woman tracking her cycle in order to prevent pregnancy, a form that is somewhat unreliable given how irregular a woman’s cycle can be. The pill, on the other hand, is 99% effective with perfect use.

The notion of the Church interfering in the state is archaic

Not only is it ridiculous but also outrageous that a scientist, an authority figure ruling over the vast British healthcare system, whom women would have hoped that they could trust, allowed their personal beliefs to interfere in the creation of a pill which was meant to liberate women. The notion of the Church interfering in the state, one which was becoming increasingly secular towards the end of the 20th century, is archaic. The NHS, a state-run institution funded by the taxpayer, millions of those taxpayers being women, still managed to privilege religion over those that it was meant to serve.

However, our outrage must extend beyond John Rock and to the medical world itself, specifically the institutional sexism which it harbours. Whilst the need for a monthly bleed was insisted upon by the pill’s creator it was maintained by the NHS. The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals has deemed withdrawal bleeding unnecessary for many years. So why did it take so long for the NHS to change their guidelines?

Studies have demonstrated clear instances of institutional sexism of our health care system, women are more likely to be given sedatives than painkillers or receive treatment for coronary heart disease later than their male counterparts. It is no wonder that women were left to suffer for so long.

In the early 21st century there were attempted changes to the way birth control was used with the introduction of Seasonale and later Lybrel in the US. Seasonale meant women would only have to endure four withdrawal bleeds a year whilst Lybrel stopped them entirely. Despite what may seem like the glaringly obvious benefits of these pills, they created controversy.

Women should have the option to prevent simulated monthly bleeds if this will allow them to feel better

Medical professionals raised concerns about the long-term side effects whilst feminist groups believed that the pioneering new drug would send the wrong message to millions of women. With menstruation already being a taboo topic in the media, they feared it would only fuel the myth that women’s bodies are defective and in need of correcting. Whilst this is a perfectly valid concern to have, feminists should be advocates for a woman’s ability to choose for herself. Women should have the option to prevent simulated monthly bleeds if this will allow them to feel better not only physically, but in many cases, mentally too. Similarly, women who would prefer to bleed monthly for whatever reason whilst still taking birth control should be granted that option too. Feminism and healthcare should be about autonomy, the right to choose the best course of action for your body as well as being informed about all the options available.

Now that guidelines have officially changed, women can now have greater freedom to adapt and tailor their approach to contraception. Nevertheless, we must continue to interrogate the practices which exist around the prescribing of birth control.

As a child at a Catholic school, contraception was a taboo. There was no space in the curriculum for educating us about the various forms and how they worked, only time to condemn all uses of contraception for violating the sanctity of marriage and interfering in ‘God’s plan.’ I, like many of my peers, simply thought that birth control existed to prevent pregnancy when in reality it is also prescribed to help those who suffer from acne and heavy periods.

Often patients lifestyle and medical history are assessed in their initial doctor's appointment

Whilst the function and existence of the pill must play a vital role in the national curriculum, GPs who are prescribing the various forms of birth control, from the pill and IUD in their various forms to the lesser known patch or NuvaRing, must make their patients more informed. Often patients lifestyle and medical history are assessed in their initial doctor’s appointment which determines what pill they are to use. One of the most common pills, to begin with, is Rigevidon.

I took this pill for three years before insisting upon switching to a pill with a lower dosage of hormones after raising concerns about the impact it had had on my mental health. Naturally, when Rigevidon made headlines last year following the death of Fallan Kurek, I like many other women who had been prescribed this pill were alarmed. At only 21 years old Kurek died as a result of a blood clot, she had been prescribed Rigevidon as a cheaper alternative to Microgynon. She was told by her local hospital and GP that she was fine despite raising the issue on multiple occasions prior to her tragic death. Although Kurek’s case was 1 in 10,000 there are online forums filled with women sharing their concerns about the pill. From depression to weight change and even irregular bleeding, the widespread dispensation of Rigevidon appears to be yet another instance of neglect. Women are told that these side-effects may be unrelated, but the myth about the withdrawal bleed has left many to question if this really is so. Is the prevalence of Rigevidon simply down to women’s voices being ignored in the many under-funded and over-subscribed waiting rooms of Britain? Is it simply a measure to cut costs in an era of austerity which is pushing the NHS to breaking point?

more must be done to expose and prevent the neglect of women in a healthcare system which is institutionally sexist

All we know for sure is that the wellbeing of millions of women is being put at risk, with 76% of all women in the UK using some form of contraception this is an issue which cannot be dismissed. The NHS must learn from past mistakes. Whilst we can be fairly certain that matters of state shouldn’t be impacted by the views of the Church in the 21st century more must be done to expose and prevent the neglect of women in a healthcare system which is institutionally sexist. The new guidelines should be set out plain and simple for existing and future pill users so that they are able to make an informed decision about contraception. The guideline change is a move in the right direction, but more must be done. Those who experience mental health problems or painful physical symptoms after beginning the pill should be taken seriously and treated with empathy. Now that myths about the pill free week have been quashed the next frontier is an increased awareness of the range of options available to women seeking contraception. Just as we should not had to have put up with an unnecessary period we should not put up with unnecessary, and in some cases life changing, side effects. A comprehensive service could not only improve women’s quality of life but actually save their lives too.