Remembering the Iconic Congressional Hearings on Birth Control Safety
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Nelson Pill Hearings held in 1970, what’s striking is how the time that has passed doesn’t change their importance or relevance. At the time they were held, Senator Gaylord Nelson chaired the hearings with the goal of addressing two concerns:
- Whether The Pill had been proven safe
- Whether women were being given sufficient information about the possible dangers.
The Nelson Pill Hearings were inspired by a series of events, which tumbled like dominos. First, while investigating ineptitude at the FDA, Senator Hubert Humphrey discovered that the scientific trial that led to the Pill’s approval only studied 132 women who were on the drug for 12 consecutive months. Morton Mintz of the Washington Post reported, “This is a scientific scandal. . . . For one thing, 132 is a smaller number of women than, this year alone, will die from clotting induced by the Pill.”
With clotting, he referred to the second domino in the chain. After the pharmaceutical industry spent years denying any link between birth control and blood clots, the British Medical Journal published the results of a massive retrospective mortality study that demonstrated a 7.5-fold increased risk of death from stroke in young women taking The Pill.
The final domino came in the form of a book from a trailblazing feminist of the women’s health movement, Barbara Seaman. Along with anecdotal stories from women who had suffered various side effects from The Pill, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill featured interviews with leading physicians from various fields, who expressed concern that The Pill had been forced upon them before it had been proven safe.
Is Birth Control Safe?
Sen. Nelson opened the hearings with the stated objective: “to present for the general public’s benefit the best and most objective information available.” In the process, they covered a shockingly diverse list of side effects and complications that sent the nation into a panic. Women across the country began calling their doctors asking to be taken off The Pill.
When pill proponents criticized Sen. Nelson for creating a panic, he shot back that if women had been warned about the dangers before being prescribed, they wouldn’t be alarmed hearing about them now.
While the hearings uncovered a plethora of side effects, I’ve selected four key concerns for us to compare where we stand now versus when the hearings took place. In so doing, I hope to build a case for why it’s time for Congress to revisit the hearings.
Of course, the hearings discussed the British study that uncovered a 7.5-fold increased risk of death from stroke. We may be tempted to assume that today’s formulations of hormonal birth control are much safer, but in 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that some current formulations of combination oral contraceptives can double a woman’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. It’s also worth noting that in 2016, Bayer, the maker of today’s most popular brands, Yaz/Yasmin, paid out $2.04 billion to settle over 10,000 blood clot-related lawsuits.
The first major headlines of the hearings came when Dr. Roy Hertz proclaimed, “[Estrogens] are to breast cancer what fertilizer is to the wheat crop.”
Dr. Max Cutler testified that 1 out of every 20 women will develop breast cancer sometime during her life. Dr. Hugh Davis added, “Now, there are some 75 to 80,000 women in this country per year who are developing diagnosed carcinoma of the breast. If the chronic taking of steroid hormones eventually increased this by only 10 percent, we would have a very, very hazardous situation on our hands”
In reality, today, we have witnessed a 210% increase! 1 in every 8 women will develop breast cancer in her life. Over 268,000 cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year.
Dr. Giles Bole Jr. described a rare disease called Lupus to the senators. He was beginning to see this older person’s disease among young women who recently started on birth control. Dr. Herbert Ratner later testified that an estimated 1 out of every 2,000 birth control users developed Lupus.
In 1999, Arthritis and Rheumatology published a report that concluded the incidence of Lupus had tripled in the past 40 years, and 90% of the diagnoses are women.
A decade later, in 2009, scientists from McGill University in Montreal released the results of a massive population study. They collected data on 1.7 million women, and found that women on oral contraceptives were 50% more likely to develop Lupus.
Depression & Suicide
Barbara Seaman warned that many doctors believed “that suicide, not blood clots, may, in fact, be the leading cause of pill deaths.” Dr. Francis Kane testified at the hearings that 1 out of every 3 Pill users showed depressive personality changes, and a little more than 1 out of every 20 became suicidal. He added that women on birth control had ‘distinctly higher scores,’ meaning not only were more of them getting depressed, but they were also experiencing greater depression.
Fast forward to 2016, Danish researchers conducted a cohort study of 1 million young women, and discovered that women taking hormonal birth control were 70% more likely to develop depression. One year later, a continuation of the same study revealed that women on birth control more than tripled their risk of committing suicide.
Just like doctors with the young women they place on hormonal birth control, Congress has been negligent in its follow-up. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Nelson Pill Hearings. These four side effects represent only a small sample of what was discussed at the hearings, but I think they alone should be sufficient for us to demand that the hearings be revisited. It’s time for new hearings focused on answering the same two questions:
- Whether The Pill—and newer forms of pharmaceutical contraceptives—have been proven safe
- Whether women are being given sufficient information about the possible dangers.
It’s only fair for women to have all the information about the possible health risks and side effects of birth control before they experience them firsthand. It’s called informed consent. And women deserve to hear about safer alternatives. Fertility Awareness-Based Methods may not be as lucrative as pharmaceutical drugs, but they seem to be what many women are opting for.