Why Do Few Women Know the Dangers of the Pill?
Mike Gaskins is a women’s health advocate, independent researcher, and author who spent much of the past decade exploring the dubious history and science of birth control. In a recent interview, Epoch Times contributor Martha Rosenberg asked him about his 2019 book, “In the Name of the Pill,” the culmination of his investigation, which was recently updated in its audiobook release.
Martha Rosenberg: Other than a 2016 study linking hormonal contraception to depression, birth control pills are seldom in the news. Yet your 2019 book, “In the Name of the Pill,” pulls back the curtain on unresolved and ongoing safety questions that few are addressing. What inspired you to write this book and at this time?
Mike Gaskins: Several years ago, I heard a lecture by an autoimmune disease expert who explained how endocrine disruptors that mimic natural estrogen play a crucial role in the condition, but when I asked him about the pill specifically, he said it played no role “at all.” In fact, he said it had never been linked to any of the diseases.
Later, I went online and discovered a study that found a significant link between the pill and the autoimmune disease lupus. I thought the expert must be unaware of the study, until there was a quote from him in that very article saying it didn’t mean women should stop taking the pill. I became interested in why the medical community seems eager to downplay the pill’s risks and began my research.
Ms. Rosenberg: In light of the scientifically documented links of the pill to blood clots, breast cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and 10 other effects you cite, what explains the medical “pass” the pill has been given for over 50 years?
Mr. Gaskins: There were several factors. The pill was strongly linked to the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and people didn’t want to appear to be criticizing the movement. (To a certain extent, the same is true today). Secondly, the pill debuted at a time when world overpopulation was a huge issue frequently lamented on the nightly news by Walter Cronkite and the likes.
Some may remember ZPG, or zero population growth. Overpopulation was such an overriding issue, some early feminists felt like their movement was being coopted to promote the pill. As this was playing out, concerned health leaders around the world were watching because they knew a successful push for the pill in the United States would create ripples for its reception globally.
Ms. Rosenberg: In “In the Name of the Pill,” you revisit the comprehensive 1970 Nelson Pill Hearings led by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. While risks were exposed at the time by experts, why did the safety scrutiny seem to end there?
Mr. Gaskins: I think the Nelson hearings are an important moment in history because they mark one of the very few times the drug companies had no control over the narrative. Plus, many of the risks and side effects they discussed are even more relevant today.
Senator Nelson’s team along with some of the feminists who became allies during the hearings felt like they had accomplished their mission. They brought national attention to the risks of the pill. Drug companies were forced to include the first-ever patient information pamphlet in each package of the drug. And new formulations were developed, which the drugmakers claimed were safer.
In the end, the drug companies managed to make the pamphlet virtually unreadable for the average layperson, and there was no real science to prove the new formulations were any safer, but the appearance that they were complying and looking for safer solutions probably helped them deflect ongoing scrutiny.
Ms. Rosenberg: “In the Name of the Pill” contains information that looks like bad medicine or even cover-ups. Can you please recount the “green plasma” chapter?
Mr. Gaskins: Yes, there’s a lot to unpack with the green plasma chapter. I’ll try to hit the highlights. It begins when a group of modern-day doctors in an operating room at Penn received a unit of plasma with a striking green color. Plasma is usually straw yellow. They rejected the plasma and sent it back, but couldn’t shake their curiosity at having never seen anything like it.
They discovered several studies on green plasma dating back to the 1960s. Doctors at that time started seeing green plasma coming from young, female donors and determined it was caused by the pill. Their studies identified the source of the green color as an overabundance of the copper-carrying protein ceruplasmin. They learned that green plasma had much higher propensity for clotting. But all of these studies mysteriously ended in 1969. The doctors from Penn couldn’t find any literature from the subsequent decades.
The Red Cross eventually came out with visual guidelines, which essentially removed green plasma from the inventory at blood banks. That’s why most clinicians have never seen it.
If the lack of intellectual curiosity from researchers since 1969 and putting the green plasma out-of-sight and out-of-mind isn’t enough, the chapter goes on to explore how people receiving blood transfusions from women often develop clotting issues, known as transfusion-related acute lung injury. TRALI became such a concern that by the early 2000s, the United Kingdom and United States moved to a male-predominant policy for plasma donations.
It starts to feel like the powers that be are only willing to address those things that draw the most attention.
Ms. Rosenberg: You also write that the effect on babies of mothers who are on the pill has not been studied.
Mr. Gaskins: Often, a young mother will weigh the pros and cons of taking hormonal birth control if she’s breastfeeding. It’s only natural that she would worry about how these potent drugs might affect her baby. If she does a web search, many of the top hits will assure her it is completely safe for her and the baby. Usually, the only caveat is that she wait until three or four weeks postpartum to start an estrogen-containing birth control because of her risk of developing blood clots.
However, when you start trying to locate the science behind these assurances that it’s safe for the baby, you find inadequate studies, with dubious results that are, at best, 40 years old.
The facts are these drugs do reduce the mother’s quantity of milk production. Those old studies found that the drugs did change the composition of the mother’s milk, but deemed it within an acceptable range. And, this is the frightening part, several published case studies shared stories of infants—both boys and girls—who developed bilateral breast growth after the mother began taking hormonal contraceptives. Their breasts returned to normal when she stopped breastfeeding.
These are anecdotal and are also over 40 years old, but again, I have to ask, where is the intellectual curiosity? Why aren’t researchers trying to find a better answer for mothers who want to know what effect hormonal birth control might have on their children?
Ms. Rosenberg: In 2009, Bayer had to run ads retracting earlier promises that its birth control pill, Yaz, would clear up acne and reduce PMS. Has such “off-label” marketing of the pill—claiming benefits not recognized by the FDA—stopped?
Mr. Gaskins: Not at all. There are several examples of off-label prescribing that are very common. When a young girl reaches menarche [her first period], her cycle is irregular. Her periods may be heavy or unpredictable because she hasn’t yet matured. Doctors use this as an opportunity to put her on birth control to “regulate” her period. Then when women get older and approach perimenopause, the pill is again recommended to “regulate” periods, despite them being at an age where the risks are even more pronounced.
The irony is birth control doesn’t regulate periods in either case, because it actually shuts down their cycle. The monthly bleeding isn’t even a period, it’s a pill withdrawal.
Many doctors also lead their patients to believe hormonal birth control is the only treatment available for PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome] or endometriosis, when it really isn’t a treatment at all. There’s nothing therapeutic about it. It may alleviate some of the pain or relieve some symptoms, but it’s doing nothing to treat the underlying issue.
Consequently, this over-prescription of steroids in birth control starting in very young women has created an epidemic of infertility. I’ve had many women tell me they took the pill for 10 or 20 years, only to find out afterward it was unnecessary, because they were infertile. They’re stunned when I tell them that birth control may have actually contributed to their infertility. It’s a phenomenon called “oversuppression syndrome.” By shutting down the body’s natural production of hormones for so long, the system essentially atrophies and leaves the woman infertile.
Ms. Rosenberg: You write that the pill risks are routinely downplayed by doctors, including liver and gallbladder issues and potentially serious eye changes.
Mr. Gaskins: I think doctors downplay the risks of birth control in general. This goes for copper IUDs as well. There are lots of side effects and complications that go along with all of these products, but, overall, doctors don’t tend to take them seriously when a woman tries to discuss it with them.
Hormonal birth control has been linked to everything from strokes and breast cancer to glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. But many of the doctors who prescribe birth control know very little about these complications.
Part of the problem is how compartmentalized Western medicine is. For example, there are tomes of studies on the thromboembolic effects of hormonal contraceptives, but most of the studies are published in journals for pulmonologists and cardiologists, not gynecologists. Doctors are also over-scheduled. They don’t have time to keep up with all the latest science. Unfortunately, that means they often rely on the drug companies’ sales reps to keep them “informed.”
Ms. Rosenberg: Since early concerns about the pill’s safety, drugmakers have implied their products are safer. Are they?
Mr. Gaskins: When you have something that’s been on the market as long as the pill, we tend to already have this assumption that it must be safe, without really digging any deeper. We’ve also been conditioned as consumers to think of any reformulation of a product as “new and improved.”
So it’s not surprising that we assume new delivery methods or newer-generation birth control must be safer. In actuality, the risks are higher for some complications, like liver adenomas or gallstones, in the third- and fourth-generation hormones. As an example, Bayer has paid out more than $1.02 billion to settle over 10,000 blood clot-related lawsuits for Yaz and Yasmin. Bayer paid another $21 million to settle thousands of gallbladder-related lawsuits.
You also have new devices like NuvaRing. A study recently found that women using this device are twice as likely to develop a blood clot as women using other forms of birth control and six times more likely than women using no birth control.
And then, there’s the Depo shot, which suppresses a woman’s immune system and leaves her more vulnerable to HIV infection from her partner. This is a unique side effect that hasn’t been linked to any other formulation or device.
An expanded audio version of “In the Name of the Pill” is now available, with new content about modern devices and little-discussed dangers scientists have linked to the various forms of birth control.