AP reporter says newer version is less effective than older one; FDA denies charge
The Associated Press sparked controversy last week by suggesting that birth control pills are less effective than the original contraceptives of the 1960s.
Andrew Bridges, an AP writer, said the Federal Drug and Administration, concerned about the increasing failure of new birth control forms, consulted a board of health advisors to decide whether these new drugs should be granted federal approval.
According to Bridges, the outside panel recommended that the FDA keep an open mind in approving the “less effective pills” because of their ability to reduce the occurrence of blood clots and stroke among women taking contraceptives.
In an affronted response made on Jan. 23, the FDA said the wire service stories had created misperceptions as to the effectiveness of modern hormonal contraceptives, “The stories inaccurately report that the products are significantly less effective at preventing pregnancy than those approved decades ago. In fact, the newer generation products are highly effective in preventing pregnancy.”
So what is the truth?
According to Kate Horle, Vice President of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood, newer generation pills do have lower levels of hormones than those of decades past. However, lower hormones do not mean lower success rates.
“Low level hormone pills are much easier and more comfortable to take. They minimize the side effects that we saw with earlier forms of the pill, [side effects] such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, etc.” Horle said.
Moreover, according to Molly Fortuna, manager of the Women’s Health Clinic at Wardenburg, it is not the composition of the contraceptive that causes it to fail, but rather the mistakes made on the user’s behalf.
“There’s what’s called typical use and perfect use. The typical use with birth control pills has an 8 percent failure rate. The perfect use of birth control pills has a 0.3 percent failure rate. So it really depends on a person using it correctly,” Fortuna said.
The statement released by the FDA went on to accuse the AP of misconstruing the purpose of the meeting with the health consultants held on Jan. 23.
“The stories mistakenly state that FDA called the meeting to discuss the need for higher standards of efficacy for the newer products,” the statement read.
Instead, the FDA claimed that the major purpose of the meeting was to discuss clinical trials designs that better reflect the diversity of users of contraceptives.
Currently, clinical trials exclude women who smoke and women with cardiovascular disease or cancer because hormonal contraceptives are considered dangerous for these women. However, this does not stop many women from continuing to take the pill.
Horle argues that women at risk should not be included in hormonal contraceptive trials because there are alternative forms of birth control available to women, for whom, hormones, or a combination of hormones, carry dangerous effects.
“Some women don’t like the side effects of hormones. So a non-hormonal contraceptive is appropriate for those women. That includes women who are smokers, who have a history of hypertension, heart attack, liver disease or other kinds of cancers or who are any of those things and over the age of 35,” Horle said.
The Copper IUD, also known as ParaGard, is one hormone-free alternative.
ParaGard works by surgically inserting a t-shaped copper coil into the uterus. The copper then serves to kill sperm.
Jentry Lee, a senior at CU, opted for the copper insert after experiencing headaches while taking the pill. Now with fewer headaches, a potentially dangerous side effect of hormonal contraceptives, Lee is happy with her decision.
“I feel like my body is naturally doing its thing,” said Lee.
Despite patterns or trends, both Horle and Fortuna believe that the best birth control method depends on a person’s specific health conditions, history, and preferences.
“It really depends on a variety of risk factors. It would depend on age, blood pressure and family history. There is a lot that would go into that decision,” Fortuna said.
The type of birth control that is best may also depend on the number of partners a women has.
“With IUDs, if a woman has multiple partners, it’s less of a good idea for her to have an IUD because of the risk of infection. But if a woman is in a monogamous relationship, or serial monogamy, then an IUD may be a very good choice,” Fortuna said.
Certainly choice and variety are positive differences from contraceptives of the 1960s. Today, alternatives to the standard combined hormonal pill include mini-pills, progesterone-only pills, ParaGard, Mirena (IUD with progesterone), Depo-Provera shot, NuvaRing, the implant (the insertion of a rod under the arm), and the patch.
One downfall of modern birth control may be the variety of options available to women, as compared to the narrow options available to men.
Although there have been talks of new birth control forms designed for male use, “the only approved option for men right now is the condom, [but] there are several other pill-based methods that are in clinical trials,” Horle said
Perhaps the lack of a pill comes as a relief to the male-half of society.
“If it came down to me or her [taking the pill], I would look to other options, such as the condom,” Andy Gerk, a senior political science major said.
Irregardless, there are ways men can take some of the burden off of women, one of which is support.
Lee felt she had the backing she needed when taking on the IUD: “I talked to my boyfriend a lot about [my decision]. He offered to pay for half of it and he did. He knew it was his responsibility too.”
For males and females alike, the world of contraceptives is increasingly expanding, but as for now the FDA is saying breathe easy: birth control is effective.
Such confidence seems to reflect the feelings of the millions who rely on the pill for pregnancy prevention everyday.
“I’ve always trusted it whole-heartedly,” Gerk said.
Contact Campus Press Staff writer Elizabeth Cuje at email@example.com.