A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco examines the link between oral contraception and glaucoma. It’s the first research of its kind to suggest that women who take the birth control pill for more than three years may be at a slightly increased risk of developing glaucoma — one of the leading causes of blindness — and it’s inspiring a rash of ominous headlines.
“Long-term birth control use could risk eyesight,” a local Oklahoma City outlet proclaimed. “Scary new side effect may make many women rethink the birth control pill,” a post on a popular parenting blog warned. Fox News reported that women taking the pill for several years in a row had “double the risk of developing glaucoma” without providing any additional context about the study’s sample size or other findings.
In fact, the actual data is considerably more nuanced. After surveying a group of 3,406 women over the age of 40, researchers found that 231 participants had glaucoma. Among that group, the women who had been taking birth control for more than three years had 2.05 times increased odds of having the disease. The study found other factors that increased that risk, too. Older participants had 1.06 times increased odds of having glaucoma. That rate of increased risk was 2.84 for the participants who reported a family history of other debilitating eye conditions, and 3.34 for African American participants.
ABC News’ senior medical contributor, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, noted that women on the pill shouldn’t panic. “This study does not demonstrate cause and effect between use of the pill and development of glaucoma. There are numerous qualifying issues,” Ashton explained in ABC News’ piece on the new study. The researchers themselves note that their findings simply suggest that women with a history of eye conditions in their family might want to talk to their doctor.
In that context, emphasizing birth control’s “scary new side effect” seems overblown. After all, there aren’t a lot of headlines suddenly warning black Americans that they could be at three times the risk of potentially going blind.
In fact, this glaucoma-related study is just the latest in a long line of hyped-up stories about birth control’s risk factors. Like any medication, the pill does come with some side effects. Using oral contraceptives carries a slightly increased risk of blood clots and stroke (although the latest long-term study into the issue found that the added risk is pretty minimal). Obviously, every woman needs to decide what type of contraceptive works best for her, and some may want to opt for a non-hormonal version like the copper IUD. There are absolutely valid reasons why a woman may not want to stay on the birth control pill. Women’s health advocates agree that it’s important to keep developing a wider range of birth control options to suit every woman’s particular needs.
But there’s a particular set of assumptions about the health issues surrounding the birth control pill, which far-right conservatives claim “poisons” women’s bodies. And it’s not just the right wing making this case. The recent book Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control makes a “feminist” case for ditching oral contraceptives, arguing that the pill is an addictive drug that hurts women.
In fact, the ailments most commonly blamed on the pill — headaches, depression, and weight gain — aren’t actually linked to oral contraceptives at all. “Over the past half century, an elaborate mythology about these ill effects has evolved, fueled by rumor, gossip and poor-quality research,” the researchers who conducted clinical trials into the subject wrote in a 2011 paper. And the most popular right-wing talking points against oral birth control, such as the fact that’s designated as a carcinogen, are misleading. Although the pill is linked to a slightly increased risk for breast and cervical cancers, it’s also associated with lower risks of ovarian and endometrial cancers. Medical professionals point out that the cancer risk is “small and transient,” and should be weighed against all of the benefits of hormonal contraception.
Bill Albert, the chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, believes that the media’s tendency to cover every single piece of news about the pill’s negative side effects is doing young women a disservice. The negative press often obscures the big picture about contraception, he explained in an interview with ThinkProgress.
“We should report on what is learned about potential side effects. What’s missing is the broader context,” Albert told ThinkProgress. “Why is it that seemingly every story about birth control focuses on some potential side effect and completely ignores the overwhelming positives of women being able to better plan their fertility?”
That’s one of the reasons that Albert’s group recently helped spearhead the first annual “Thanks, Birth Control” Day, a national day of action encouraging supporters to publicize the ways that contraception has benefited their lives. Even though the development of modern forms of birth control is considered to be one of the most important public health achievements of the 20th century, the negative press — side effects, lawsuits, and political fights — often overshadow the positive news about the ways that it allows women to achieve their goals, gain financial independence, and space their pregnancies.
Albert thinks that celebrating birth control is an important step to getting young Americans to use it.
“At present, 40 percent of those 18-29 agree with the following statement: ‘It doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not, when it’s your time to get pregnant it will happen.’ This is the sexual equivalent of believing in a flat earth,” he pointed out. “I suspect that has something to do with the steady drum beat of negative stories, overblown side effects hysteria, and lack of context.”