As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a New Zealand woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Taylor-Jade Hira, killed by a man on 18 August 2019, at the age of 22.
By Jessica Sutton.
It took one ten-minute doctor’s appointment for me to be prescribed Ginette 35. My first experience of the contraceptive pill threatened my mental and physical health to a terrifying extent, but I refused, for a very long time, to admit that it was a problem. The only positive in this story is this – I stopped taking it. And I’m back to my happy, healthy, normal self – thinking more deeply about how women are forced to accept life-threatening side effects of medication which should be safe for us.
Of course, I’m lucky. The very fact I have access to birth control at all makes me lucky. And I felt lucky on Ginette – right up until a few months in, when the pains in my legs started. And the migraines. Then the heart palpitations. I was so distracted by those pains, I didn’t even realise until my partner pointed it out, how fully my personality had changed. Outwardly everything was the same, my grades were perfect, I continued and increased my extracurricular commitments, I poured my energy into what I’m passionate about – but I didn’t feel any of it. For the first time in my life, my mood had taken an enormous and sustained dive, with seemingly no reason for the decline. It took me stumbling out of a meeting, terrified I was having a heart attack, for me to make the link between the pill I was taking and the pain and low mood I was experiencing.
Turns out I should never have been prescribed the pill at all. I have a history of migraines, and visual disturbance migraines are one of the highest risk factors for having a stroke while taking the pill. I could have dropped dead halfway through law school from a stroke. A stroke, at age 22. The pains in my legs indicated a fatal blood clot may have been forming. Most forms of the contraceptive pill render thrombosis 6 times more likely. But the pill I was on? Made me 8 times more likely to suffer a fatal blood clot. And this pill (under another brand name, Diane 35) has been linked to multiple deaths in Europe. That’s multiple women, dead for simply attempting to exercise control over their bodies. Ginette/Diane should not be prescribed as long-term contraception, when it was created as a short-term treatment for acne (and I and many other young women prescribed Ginette for birth control, don’t have acne).
The next doctor I went to, heard my story with the well-controlled horror of a medical professional, and yanked me off Ginette with immediate effect. My legs and heart pains stopped straight away. My mood leapt back to normal a few days after. Next up was Norimin. So much safer, I was told. One day in, the heart palpitations were back. A few more weeks, the depression was back too. I wasn’t about to let it interfere with my grades, and pulled myself off it. ‘Shopping around’ for a pill that didn’t disrupt my health made 2018 one of the worst years of my life.
Now, back to normal, and with hindsight, maybe the pill just isn’t for me. I would never counsel a woman not to explore contraceptive options. But my view of the acceptability of these ‘side effects’ has entirely changed. Women on the pill are 23 % more likely to develop depression. It’s worse for young women aged between 15 and 19, who have been recorded as 80 % more likely to become depressed due to pill usage. With mood swings, school stresses, and family upsets, teenage years are a time of upheaval. Add to this being placed long-term on contraception which can create or exacerbate symptoms of depression, and young women trying to make a sensible choice about their bodies are rendered exceedingly vulnerable to crippling depression. The link with strokes, thrombosis, and heart abnormalities, I have already discussed. There is also a small increased breast cancer risk. Other non-fatal side effects vary.
When men were presented with the same side effects and risks, the male pill was largely abandoned. Research continues (despite lack of support from pharmaceutical companies) until the dangerous side effects are remedied and it’s acceptable to male consumers. If women had other options, we wouldn’t accept this either. But it’s different when it’s your body at risk of pregnancy, when it’s your future that could be derailed by a broken condom. It’s small wonder then, that over 200,000 women rest their reproductive autonomy and health on methods that doctors assure us are safe for our use.
We deserve better. Reliable contraception should not be considered a luxury that women should be grateful for in the face of life-threatening side effects. Any medication has side effects, but I refuse to believe that the current situation is the best the pharmaceutical industry can do. Being able to control our bodily integrity, including preventing unwanted pregnancies, is a human right under the UN Declaration of Human Rights and multiple other international law instruments. And contraception that can kill us or destroy our mental health is simply not good enough. Women deserve safe and effective birth control, and this shouldn’t be a debate, this shouldn’t be something we need to convince society we are worthy of. We are fully autonomous human beings and reproductive rights should not be relegated to a lower status than other rights merely because they largely impact women.