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Coming Off the Pill: A Thought Process

Why we need to rethink our assumptions about contraception

I had been on the pill since I was 16, so that’s 4 years on the medication. In this time I assured myself, friends and family, that I felt completely and absolutely normal. And I did. As many other people gave up their pill because of the impact it had on their mental health, I felt like I had struck gold at my ability to swallow it down with seemingly no consequences. However, come September last year my pill began to cause unexpected bleeding throughout the month. As with all female health problems, this could either be absolutely normal or unspeakably bad. After a few panicked pregnancy tests, STI checks and cervical tests, alas, the bleeding seemed to have no alarming cause, instead it was just something I’d have to wait out. For a month I sat tight and waited for the bleeding to cease, which unsurprisingly it didn’t. 

You know when you hear of something and then you see it everywhere? Or alternatively described as the Frequency allusion. Suddenly the world was full of reasons for me not to take my pill. Dr Sarah F. Hill became the central figure in my media consumption, with interviews of her popping up on Facebook, Twitter, and every odd newspaper I picked up on the bus or in a waiting room. I now realise this is what can also be called a press release, her new book ‘How the Pill Changes Everything’ was doing it’s media tour. But nevertheless, after the seed of doubt had been planted, I decided to come off the pill and see what happened.  

At first, not much. I had a painful period and some moody spells. However a week in I realised that my life had changed. Bare with me for this bit, you may cringe but I’ve found many other women who have chosen to come off the pill have felt exactly the same. Suddenly I felt like my head worked a tiny bit faster, I felt my own presence in my body a tiny bit more, and most importantly I felt every feeling a little more too. Things that had once just made me interested made me incredibly happy, things that had once made me slightly uncomfortable filled me with anxiety. I suddenly felt as if I had been living the past few years without the normal highs and lows of life, and instead had been feeling a kind of numbness.

And alas, the first thing that felt the impact of my new anxiety was my bike. The last thing I thought that would be impacted by my choice of birth control would be my brand new bike from the Cowley road Cycle King. When I came back to Oxford after Christmas, the thought of getting on my bike and having to traverse the busy roads was just overwhelming. I am dyspraxic and even on a good day would find the journey worrisome- but now something that had once just made me nervous now filled me with a new kind of dread. Although I dearly miss the £150 I handed over for the bike and lament the 20 minute walk into town, I feel some kind of satisfaction that my fears and anxieties, as well as my joys and excitement, are no longer buried as deep inside me. 

 Going from someone who swore the pill was perfect for them, to someone who refuses to use hormonal birth control, gave me some kind of whiplash. Just to be clear I completely understand that the pill is the right choice for many people, and we all have to make trade offs when it comes to birth control and do our own calculations about what we need. 

But we sadly live in a world where those of us with a womb carry the brunt the brunt of birth control. Of course this stems from the fact that we would inevitably have bigger consequences of conception, however logistically it makes no sense. A biological female will always create significantly less offspring than a biological male. One person’s ejaculation could theoretically impregnate more than one person every day, every day of the week. Whereas a menstrual cycle only grants fertility for a fraction of the month, female contraceptives cannot be taken on those few days and instead require constant implantation or ingestion. It makes much more statistical sense of birth control to be directed towards male fertility. 

The patriarchal world has allowed women to act like guinea pigs putting up with a range of worrying side effects and going on with little complaint. Even though the limited choices available to us in the UK seem bad enough, birth control is involved in a colonial dynamic in which early stage development of pills have been tested on impoverished communities all over the world by Western pharmaceuticals under the tagline of empowering women. The U.S carried out contraceptive trials on many women in Puerto Rico, many of whom did not consent. They were not informed of the risks involved and given high doses of oestrogen- they presented all of the side effects that are still present today, but to a much more severe degree. Multiple women died on these trials and their deaths were not recorded, simply dismissed as a coincidence despite strong circumstantial evidence. This is just one of numerous communities that have been exploited. Although it delivers freedoms, the pill clearly has oppressive, patriarchal and colonial history. 

It is a privilege to be able to access birth control. The ability to engage in sex simply for pleasure, the prevention of pregnancies in places it could be life threatening, the ability to control you timetables- among other things- have all undoubtably changed women’s lives. In communities with access to birth control, women are healthy weights, spend longer in education, climb career ladders and are able to release themselves from the domestic position that children put them in.

But where does that leave us? The few months where I came off the pill and debated different contraceptive methods made me realise how really limited our choices are. This is a testament to the lack of funding and research that ever goes into women’s health. It is not pedantic to suggest that if it were men who were forced to carry the burden of contraception, their options would be much greater, much safer and carry much less side effects. Male contraceptive trials have never gone far because of the dangerous and unpleasant side effects that most women face every day on popular forms of contraception. Society builds not only tolerates, but accepts, female pain and struggle. 

My experience on the pill has been much less problematic and painful than most, and for that I am grateful. But I can’t help but think what I, and many others, give up when we take medications that have not been developed with women’s welfare in mind. We are all grateful to be able to enjoy life free of the risk of pregnancy but our feminism must not stop there, we must demand that women’s health and contraceptive issues be given the funding and development it needs to confront the dark history of contraception and the unwelcome side effects.

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