Fighting 50 years after the pill / ella approved

August 17, 2010

The FDA has officially approved the morning-after contraceptive ella.

(See pdf of National Women’s Health Network testimony for more background.)

In the article below, from the July-August 2010 issue of News & Letters, Terry Moon examines the fundamental questions raised by the politics of contraceptives and of the medical establishment’s relationship to women.

Woman as Reason

Fighting 50 years after the pill

by Terry Moon

The anniversary of one pill and the debate around others tell a tale of capitalism’s drive for profit vs. women’s struggle for the right to control our own bodies.

While many have noted that 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill, and a few acknowledged that women, not just pharmaceutical companies, “played a role,” the truth is that with “the Pill,” women changed history.

In 1969, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill by Barbara Seaman, a pioneer in the women’s liberation self-health movement, changed how Big Pharma did business. It made public what birth control pill manufacturers had always known but kept secret: the pill increased women’s risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. She exposed that the pill had been tested on poor women in Puerto Rico given unconscionable high-dose pills and no informed consent.

Her book was so explosive that Congress was forced to hold hearings in 1970, but women who had suffered from the pill were not allowed to testify. Women disrupted the proceedings. Two at a time, 30 women jumped up to yell out a truth about their lives, a critique of the committee, or a fact about the pill and how it had damaged their, or other women’s, lives.


Because of what women did, birth control pills were the first drug to have a warning label, something we now take for granted; and Seaman also insisted on the right of all patients to information and informed consent for drug tests.

Drug companies took the fact that women use medical services more than men to attempt to make money off of legitimate health concerns and problems, and to brand perfectly normal conditions as diseases:

  • While marketed for everything from heart health to preventing dementia to younger looking skin, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) did nothing for those problems but did give hundreds of thousands of women breast cancer and strokes. Drug companies are are still marketing HRT for preventing dementia, whereas long-term HRT “therapy” increases dementia as well as mild cognitive impairment!
  • A new diagnosis “osteopenia,” or bone density below “normal” but not low enough to be osteoporosis, is a way to sell costly drugs with dangerous side effects. Since normal bone mass is that of an average 30-year-old, and bone naturally deteriorates with age, almost all women older than 30 could be diagnosed with “osteopenia,” even though there is nothing abnormal or ill about them. Big Pharma’s eagerness to push their drugs to “cure” a normal condition is seen in their offering free bone density scanning machines to doctors and their creation of “guidelines” recommending women be screened at 50 when no science-based organization recommends screening women under age 65.
  • Women dodged the so-called “female viagra,” Flibanserin, which purported to treat “hypoactive sexual desire disorder”—a fancy new “diagnosis” for “low” sexual desire. The FDA turned down drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim’s request for approval but only because it was no more effective than a placebo and had serious side effects. It should have been refused because many times low sexual desire is normal, because who is to say what is “normal sexual desire” in the first place, and because we should live in a society where different ranges of sexual desire are not an excuse for medicalization. Big Pharma has been attempting to cash in on a “female Viagra” for over a decade with no doubt a new drug and disease diagnosis in the works.


Now, what about a drug that appears very safe, that was approved last year in 22 countries? That drug, ulipristal acetate, to be sold as EllaOne, is a new “morning after” birth control pill. It can protect a woman from pregnancy five days after unprotected sexual intercourse, rather than only three days, as does Plan B. That is the drug the right-wing fanatics chose to protest as unsafe.

Concerned Women of America and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists prove their fanatical ideology by decrying EllaOne: “It kills embryos, just like the abortion pill. It’s embryotoxic.” This drug is for expelling a few cells that one would be hard-pressed to see under a powerful microscope. It’s a fertilized egg, not even a fetus.

EllaOne is birth control, whether it works by keeping a woman from ovulating, as the science suggests, or by keeping a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s womb, as the fanatics would like people to believe. Hilariously, these groups claim they fear women will use EllaOne to abort a fetus, putting themselves at risk for life-threatening complications. If that’s what they are really worried about, they should be fans of early abortions, one of the safest procedures available, safer than actually having a baby.

If the Concerned Women of America cared at all about women and drugs, they might turn their attention from ones proven safe, to those being pushed on women by drug companies driven to disregard women’s health and lives by capitalism’s hunger for profit.

In our world, women fight for the right to control our bodies and lives, and create a new world based on human foundations where that kind of struggle will be part of a proud past.

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