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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Feeling Like a Scientific Experiment on Birth Control Pills

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I'm on my second stint with birth control pills after a few years' hiatus. However, after one cycle, I have noticed a severe drop in my sex drive. My physician's response is to continue on a different pill. This is frightening! I'm not interested in becoming a guinea pig at the risk of my sex life! Seeking an additional opinion, please.

Ironically, a decrease in sex drive is a relatively common side effect of hormonal birth control methods like pills. As you know from your previous experience taking birth control pills, not all types of pills have this effect on all people, and it's difficult to predict how each individual will react when they start taking a particular brand (there are around 90 different pills on the market right now). Your physician's recommendation to switch to another brand to see if your libido returns is pretty standard; health care providers know which types of pills are more or less likely to cause certain side effects.

Just because your body's reaction and your doc's response are typical doesn't mean that you don't have a right to be concerned, though. Women have served as “guinea pigs” in the development of hormonal birth control since it was introduced in the late 1950s (see the excellent PBS “American Experience” documentary and website, The Pill, for detailed information about this).  Although reports of serious side effects related to the pill were reported just a few years after its introduction, it took a full decade for the FDA to order that information about side effects be included with pills. The first version of birth control pills also used an unnecessarily high dose of hormones.

More recently, women have debated whether enough research had been done before bringing to market birth control pills that completely suppress menstruation, like Seasonale and Seasonique. In 2005, filmmaker Giovanna Chesler made a documentary called Period: The End of Menstruation? that examined this issue. Just last month, Marie Claire magazine published an article examining lawsuits filed by women against the manufacturers of NuvaRing, claiming a too-high risk of blood clots. Many other methods of hormonal birth control have had similar lawsuits and claims made against them over the years.

Does this mean that you should stop using hormonal methods of contraception? Not necessarily. Hormonal birth control is extremely effective, second only to sterilization in its ability to prevent pregnancy. For some women, this high level of effectiveness is worth the trade-off in side effects (even those that are potentially unknown before a particular brand of contraceptive is released to the market). For others, the side effects are not worth it, and they are willing to accept a higher risk of pregnancy in exchange for less impact on their bodies. Non-hormonal methods, like condoms, contraceptive sponges, diaphragms, cervical caps and some brands of IUDs, are available.

The most important thing is to make an informed choice about birth control that's right for you. Check out the Feminist Women's Health Center or Planned Parenthood for online tools that can help you compare effectiveness, risks and other factors to help you choose a method that lets you sleep worry-free at night.