The Pill Increases Your Risk…Compared to What?

This piece was written by Katy Suellentrop, Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation Programs for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. It is cross-posted on The Campaign’s blog Pregnant Pause.

Last Friday the New York Times published an article focusing on the potential health concerns of using two popular oral contraceptives, Yaz and Yasmin. While this information is certainly important and the risks of serious side effects including blood clots and stroke should absolutely be considered when thinking about what type of contraception to use, the article failed to discuss the risk of health issues during pregnancy. Studies have found that 4 to 5 per 100,000 reproductive age women who are not taking birth control pills will develop thrombosis. Among women taking low-dose birth control pills that risk increases to 12 to 20 per 100,000. Among pregnant women the risk is even higher –48 to 60 per 100,000. So when we hear about the increased risks of serious side effects such as blood clots and strokes we need to ask ourselves: "Compared to what?"

In addition to providing us with the scary news, I wish there
were more articles about the women, men and families who are thankful for reliable birth control methods such as the pill. A recent report
from the Guttmacher Institute found that nearly half of women reported that they wanted to reduce or delay their childbearing because of recent economic concerns–clearly family planning is as important as ever.

There are lots of other great methods of birth control
available, but like anything in life there are trade-offs for each one, and we all have to find the one that fits us best (check out our Birth Control 101
page for more information). While most methods have side effects (and these should be discussed with your doctor), consider the potential alternative–an unplanned pregnancy.

Why do we expect so much more from our birth control pills than from other medications we take?

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  • equalist

    “Why do we expect so much more from our birth control pills than from other medications we take?”

    I saw this line and had to comment, it’s absolutely TRUE! How often do we see ads on tv and in magazines promoting all kinds of medications, and then at some point in the commercial in a lowered monotone announce a grocery list of side effects ranging from the uncomfortable to the horrific before jumping back into the typical cheerful shout of normal commercial tone. Honestly, there are medications for arthritis that have far more frightening side effects than those I’ve seen on the birth control commercials. Honestly, cancer? Seizures? Nervous system failure? Death? Do people actually feel encouraged to buy these medications with a list like that? The real questions are, how are these medications getting through the FDA, and how can anyone honestly complain about the risks of birth control with side effects like that out there on other medication?
    Equal rights, equal responsibilities.

  • cnmellen

    Excellent point. The important question is what are the risks of the contraceptive method compared to the risks of pregnancy. And always remember that you are unlikely to see an article with the headline "contraceptive method X has enabled millions of women to safely avoid unplanned pregnancies."
    One simple guideline in choosing any medication is to pick the oldest one. The newer — also the most advertised and most expensive — medications are still quasi-experimental until they have been in use for many years and their side effects become better known.
    I just wish the author included midwives and nurse practitioners as providers with whom women should discuss birth control options; doctors are not the only ones who prescribe contraceptive methods.

  • ksuellentrop

    Thank you for your comment, and for pointing out my unintentional oversight of not explicitly recognizing the critical job of midwives and nurse practioners.  These medical professionals provide important opportunities for discussions about contraception, and they are able to prescribe contraceptive methods as well. 

  • hatmaker510

    The article makes excellent points that needed to be said and heard by many.
    When it comes to the two pills you mentioned, Yaz & Yasmin, aren’t these more than your average birth control? To my understanding, one or both are more for the treatment of PMDD, a very severe form of PMS. As I understand it, women should NOT be using these for birth control only. But, I may be wrong in whole or in part.
    Does anyone have more specific or detailed information related to this?
    That said, this in no way takes away from the main point of the article.

  • frolicnaked

    According to FDA communications, both Yaz and Yasmin are indicated for oral contraception.

    Yaz is only indicated as a treatment for PMDD and moderate acne “only if the patient desires an oral contraceptive for birth control,” but both drugs are approved for use as birth control alone.

  • joshuasgrandma

    It is interesting that the articles on risks of contraceptives rarely compare those risks to the risks of pregnancy complications and childbirth, which are many times higher, particularly for young teenagers.
    The publication, Contraceptive Technology, used to have a great chart comparing the relative risks of birth control methods, childbirth and other risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving, and riding a motorcycle without a helmet. I used that chart in sex ed classes and it really helped students put things in perspective.



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