Birth control pills celebrate 50th birthday, but safety still in question

Next month the birth control pill celebrates its 50th birthday in the United States. Since then, women’s choices in contraceptives have branched out from pills to patches and implants and injections and so on. Despite the many options now available, there are about 3.1 million unplanned pregnancies each year. Some speculate that women just don’t feel safe taking birth control.

The first birth control pills approved for use in the 1960s contained high amounts of hormones, resulting in bothersome and sometimes dangerous side effects including mood swings, weight gain and blood clots. Since then, hormone levels in pills have dropped to as low as one-tenth of what they were 50 years ago. The side effects waned and benefits, such as regulated periods, less acne and bloating, and lighter flows, began to win over skeptics. Long term studies identified even greater benefits – a lower risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.

But what also began to surface most recently were lawsuits aimed at the manufacturers of birth control products. For example, Johnson & Johnson recently settled thousands of lawsuits from women who suffered blood clots and strokes from the company’s Ortho Evra birth control patch. Similar lawsuits are mounting against Bayer Pharmaceuticals’ blockbuster oral contraceptive, Yaz. And most recently, lawsuits have been filed against the makers of the NuvaRing birth control device, all from women who say they were not adequately warned of their risk of serious and life-threatening injury.

“There are terrible misperceptions about these methods— and about all forms of contraception,” James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, told the Wall Street Journal. Given the women who have suffered needlessly, perhaps those misconceptions are with merit.