A Natural Alternative to the Pill?


In the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Pill, we’ve seen a bevy of articles singing the praises of this revolutionary breakthrough in women’s reproductive health and automony. While I agree the Pill has allowed many women to gain more freedom in their sexuality, I haven’t jumped on the laudatory bandwagon for many reasons. As fellow reproductive justice comrade, Bianca Laureano, brilliantly explained the bodies of women of Color, especially in Puerto Rico, were testing grounds for the pharmaceutical industry in the development of hormonal contraception. I also take serious issue with the extent of the side effects. For me it was uncontrollable emotions, incessant hair growth and weight gain but for some women, like the author of this Salon article, “Why I Hate The Pill,” it affects the libido. These may sound like surmountable problems but they certainly affect a woman’s quality of life. As a reproductive health and justice advocate, it’s unpopular position to speak out against the Pill and other contraceptives because there is enough opposition to reproductive rights so I don’t aim to add fuel to the fire. I know that many women use hormonal contraceptives to not only prevent unintended pregnancy but also to regulate their cycles, eliminate cramps, tame acne, etc; and they are perfectly happy. However for a significant population of women, the side effects largely outweigh the benefits.

So what is the alternative? With the Pill off the table, we are left with very few options besides condoms (or diaphragms and cervical caps which are essentially out of existence and have lower effectiveness rates), or more permanent solutions like the IUD and sterilization which do not make sense for younger women or women who want to have children in the next few years.

I discovered what seems to be a gift from heaven when I attended a lecture about natural contraceptives at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Annual Conference at Hampshire College a couple of years ago. It’s an herb called wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne’s Lace) with contraceptive properties that can be made into teas and tinctures, or has seeds that are chewed. This has been used for several decades by women in China and India, and Robin Rose Bennett has been surrounded by controversy and naysayers in her efforts to bring this to American women. Essentially wild carrot inhibits the conversion of pregnenolone to progesterone, the hormone necessary to make the uterus an ideal place for implantation. So if there is no progesterone, there is no implantation. So a woman is supposed to take ½ tablespoon of the tincture eight to 12 hours after intercourse, another dose 12 hours later, and then the final dose 12 hours after that. During the lecture, the facilitator from Wise Women Ways, even showed us how we can make the tincture ourselves. I’m a little wary of making my own contraception, since it’s more serious than making a smoothie or a mojito, though I do want to experiment with my inner alchemist and my green thumb!

Since the tincture seemed pretty simple, and I’m familiar with tinctures for colds and other ailments, I tried it. The side effects I had were minimal, most notably increased breast tenderness before my period. But the lecturer explained that it’s a common side effect due to the decrease in progesterone, and for me it was minimal compared to the effects I experienced on the Pill. Also a couple of times, my period was off by a couple of days. That can be a little scary considering you’re depending on an “untested” contraceptive but thus far I haven’t had a pregnancy.

My caveat is that I’m not in a committed long-term relationship so I haven’t consistently used this method over long periods of time. Yet it provides a contraceptive option for women who are not in long-term relationships but are having sex and want to avoid a pregnancy. In the meantime, there are ongoing trials testing wild carrot amongst couples, particularly cohabitating ones, to ensure the effectiveness in a wider range of experiences.

I strongly reiterate that birth control is not one size fits all and this has worked for MY lifestyle. Anyone who uses traditional hormonal contraception is experimenting with their body, and using natural remedies are no different. I don’t look down at women who have found comfort and security in the Pill and I support anything that safely gives women reproductive freedom and automony. However, it makes some women’s lives a living hell. Women deserve to have a wide range of options readily available to make the ideal decisions for their bodies and sexual health. 

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  • crowepps

    This also has the advantage of being PRIVATE since there’s no requirement that anyone seek the ‘permission’ of a doctor or pharmacist to use it.

  • prochoiceferret

    Neighbors and the landlord of a south Lincoln duplex said they’re shocked about the latest wild-carrot-growing raid in the city. Police said a young couple with a new baby has been growing Queen Anne’s Lace in their basement. Investigators said they found the plants while serving a search warrant. “We found 10 juvenile carrot plants in a hidden room,” said Lincoln police Officer Katie Flood. Jeffrey and Kimberly Troester appeared in court on Friday to face a judge, Jeffrey Troester is charged with growing abortifacient herbs and his wife is charged with aiding and abetting. Neither has been in trouble with the law before. Flood said officers also found 140 grams of processed carrot herb, $3,400 in Whole Foods Market coupons and a battery-powered dildo. The couple’s 7-month-old son was also in the house, Flood said. “We’ll be monitoring that infant to ensure he won’t be an only child,” said Flood. Investigators said they started looking at the couple after receiving two Sin Stoppers tips in March. Some neighbors and the landlord said in off-camera interviews that Troester was clean-cut and pious, and the last person they would suspect of growing wild carrot. Troester received his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Nebraska last weekend. Flood said he also told police he had served in the military. “We believe they started growing the herb to supplement their sex life,” Flood said. “She was regaining her voracious libido after the birth of their child and didn’t want to end up pregnant again.” Investigators said they don’t believe the bust is related to more than a dozen home growing operations uncovered in Lincoln earlier this year.

     

    (Spoofed from this story)

  • hmprescott

    I looked up Bennet’s study and found that she tested this on only 12 women, 3 of whom became pregnant.  So, I don’t have much confidence in a method that’s only 75% effective.

     

    Also, Queen Anne’s lace is easily confused with poisonous plants that closely resemble it.

     

    Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe or effective.

  • chris-12345

    As a nurse I’m shocked that you would put out this information. “Natural” does not mean effective or safe. Women are going to get pregnant because of this misinformation.

  • hmprescott

    I agree with chris12345 – more comments on my own blog, Knitting Clio.

  • dadumdumdada

    “Purple clover, queen anne’s lace / Crimson hair across your face / You could make me cry, if you don’t know.” – Bob Dylan

    This article gives the above lyric a different, if unintended, interpretation.

    I have long known that queen anne’s lace is a wild carrot, and I’ve even tried it. I didn’t find it very tasty.

    The question I have about this article, as well as about “the pill,” is why don’t more women insist that their male sexual pardners take responsibility? I’ve long used condoms, and they’ve always worked. You can’t argue with a 100% success rate! Plus, while I suppose some people may be allergic to it, or something, it must be extremely rare. It’s safe, it’s effective, and it prolongs the experience: a win-win-win situation!

    Although, that said, I think queen anne’s lace probably tastes better. (Use as directed.)

  • deb-r

    Well, Prochoiceferret–my husband and I are going to be in big trouble–we can’t get rid of the stuff growing in our organic garden–it has the most pernacious root system LOL. Seriously, I recomend Susan Weed’s site and books for information on what women have traditionally used for BC. Much of the info was stolen from women by the Catholic Church which murdered women who had this kind of traditional knowledge throughout much of its history, I read a great book long ago “The Witch Doctors Apprentice” by Nicole Maxwell. she stayed with tribal people of the Amazon –the women were shocked that white women did not have plants to stop pregnancy as they used very effective plants. Of course, any woman using botanical ways to prevent pregnancy should be go into it knowing that it may not be effective or could have worse side effects. But I loved the idea of not being dependent on anyone else to prevent pregnancy. I used NFP combined with herbs and condoms. for many years. I was not able to use hormonal BC for many reasons–though I did not realize how much it depressed my libido until I quit using it. And NO Dr told me it could be a problem. I also am allergic to just about everything else–spermicides and latex and the non latex condoms are really expensive! I loved learning how my cycle works (NFP) and was lucky to learn it from a woman empowering perspective rather than the CAtholic way, I also encourage couples to think about using non intercourse ways of enjoying eachother during fertile times (which of course the Church does NOT encourage in their NFP classes). As far as the Pill is concerned it should be required that medical people should give full disclosure to patients of all possible side effects–including loss of libido–so they don’t just think there is something wrong with them(which is what happened to me). Of course it works well for many women–we just need full disclosure on any medication we may take. I later would tell friends the pill works because you never want to have sex when you have either a severe migraine or a yeast infection or are just plain fatigued all the time. Thank Goddess I am now menopausal and in a committed relationship–yeah–no more worries about BC and enjoying sex more than ever!

  • prochoiceferret

    There’s a lot to be said for effective traditional remedies, whose knowledge has been lost to time. And if wild carrot really does work as a contraceptive, with reliability at least equaling the Pill, I’ll gleefully welcome it as a better option—not least because it can be grown at home, inexpensively, and independent of large industries that often don’t act in the best interests of people. (Did anyone else think of the extinct silphium plant as they read this article?)

     

    As much as I’d like to have an option like this, however, switching off my skepticism is not an option. Hmprescott and chris12345 have a point. Without rigorous, controlled testing, this is just another acai-berry craze waiting to happen. What if it only works, say, 60-70% of the time? Longtime usage in China and India is cited, but are the women in these countries wanting the same thing we do (“no baby until I say so”), or are they happy just to get some more breathing room between their “accidents?”

     

    Wild carrot may be backed by tradition and people who swear by its use, but then, so was crocodile feces. We may have lost whole worlds of incredibly safe and effective traditional remedies for everything that ails us, but then, we also lost a lot of quack-placebo “cures” that probably hurt a lot more people than they helped. Western bio-medicine may have its shortcomings, but having a well-defined methodology to separate wheat from chaff isn’t one of them. And as long as we’re hearing about wild carrot from herbalist advocates, and not university researchers, we don’t really have a way of telling which of the two it is.

  • jaz

    I appreciate the spirited discussion and all of the anecdotes, that is my hope with this post…to stimulate discussion. I’d like to reiterate, even though I say this throughout the post, that wild carrot is something that has worked for ME. I do not say anywhere that it is a cure-all and should replace the pill. I also mention that the effectiveness is questionable, controversial and something that is currently being studied. I am not telling anyone to drop their current methods and run towards wild carrot but for women who have experienced issues with hormonal contraception, it may be a viable option.

    To Chris_12345: I have been to many doctors and nurses over the years who have done nothing but push me to take hormonal contraception, and the nurse who prescribed me the Pill when I was in college didn’t tell me anything about the severe side effects I would experience. She told me that it would clear my acne and laughed off my questions about side effects. I didn’t know there were different doses of hormones until years later! I repeat, contraception is not one size fits all. I encourage people to do their own research, and even say that everything we test in our bodies is an experiment. There are women who have gotten pregnant on the Pill as well.

    Many thanks for reading and for discussing! 

     

  • hmprescott

    I’m glad you reiterate that wild carrot is still an experimental method — that wasn’t entirely clear in your original post.

    re: women getting pregnant on the Pill – not as common as other methods but it does happen. (I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t — my Mom got pregnant while taking the Pill in the early 1960s).

  • biancalaureano

    Jaz, thanks for the shout-out and for this piece! It’s often that conversations about alternative/complementary/herbal methods are immediately ignored and attempts to debunk them are, as you see, numerous. I think your position was clear about this being your own personal testimonio, for me what stood out was your constant use of “I” to make the connection.

     

    One thing I adore about your post is that your uses of the terms “woman” and “women” are inclusive and challenge the boundaries that many readers (even the ones who are not commenting) may not realize they  may* place on the term. I think your article here pushes boundaries of what can be methods that may work for ALL women around the world. Often people get stuck in a Western ideology and Western way of defining and thinking of “women” which still ignores many of us (you and I included for reasons you’ve explained in past posts as have I).

     

    What would the conversation here look like if people recognized that when you and I talk about reproductive justice that it is not just specific to people living in the US, but to include people who are forced to live in the US for various reasons (i.e. colonization, refugee status, etc.), people who have family members in the US, or whose daily life is impacted by decisions that the US (government) makes on an international platform? How would a recognition of this option for some women be the only one they have shift this conversation? When do we begin to get comfortable with recognizing how new forms of colonization are taking place when certain methods are promoted over others in international communities? What if everyone who came to read came with the understanding (and fact) that not all women in this country are seen as equal, valued or protected in the same way?

     

    Finally, I’m personally tired of conversations that wrap the ideology of assimilation into a contraceptive and birth control option self-determination discourse. I think you have presented an interesting dialogue to begin to examine why are people living in the US so comfortable in ignoring and devaluing the methods of contraception many of our ancestors have used successfully for decades/generations. That these are parts of our oral narratives, the cultural transmission the women in our families have given to us. These are gifts. We each make choices on how and if/when to use them but they are our gifts and not gifts for others to devalue. As you know the cultural imperialist approach is not one I’m a fan of. Thank you hermana!

    *seriously the fact that i have to put these terms in italics to make it clear that they are there is triflin.