by Jessica Zorn
Birth control is generally expected to do exactly that; control when and how a woman chooses to give birth. The topic of birth control, however, has been highly politicized by lawyers, lobbyists and the media, among others. For instance, Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in 2014, argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States that they should not be required to cover certain contraceptives for its employees under the Affordable Care Act due to religious beliefs. More recently, in April 2017, a federal law was passed which would allow states to defund a major provider of birth control, Planned Parenthood.
One thing is for sure: despite the highly politicized rhetoric about birth control, young women utilize many diverse methods of preventing pregnancy—medications, abstinence or even (as the joke goes) their own personalities. However, only a woman and her doctor can be sure of exactly why a patient might take birth control medication because there are so many uses for “the pill.”
In fact, in 2011, a researcher with the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute found that more than half of birth control pill users in this country (58 percent) rely on the medication for more than just pregnancy prevention. Among teens, that percentage skyrockets to 82 percent. The United States government’s National Survey of Family Growth revealed that about 762,000 woman who have never even had intercourse take birth control. Why?
Each type of birth control pill contains a combination of hormones, which can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle in positive ways. For example, the medication can help with debilitating menstrual cramps, alleviate heavy periods, and even lower a woman’s risk of having an ectopic pregnancy (when a fetus develops outside the uterus). It can also help a user manipulate the timing of her cycle so she can avoid all the complications of “that time of the month” if her situation calls for it. Importantly, the hormones in birth control can help reduce premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms like fatigue, pain or agitation.
But the pill’s benefits extend even further than a woman’s reproductive cycle. Birth control pills can be used to treat polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes painful cysts, excess hair growth, and irregular bleeding. They’re also prescribed to women with endometriosis to help thin the uterine lining or prevent periods altogether. If women are plagued by an extraordinarily low body weight, suffer from high stress, or excessively exercise, they could be at risk for having low iron and weaker bones. The estrogen in birth control can help regulate their iron levels to help with bone health.
The pill can also supplement hormone deficiencies which occur with conditions like primary ovarian insufficiency, which causes ovaries to produce less estrogen after a woman goes through radiation or chemotherapy, for example. A medicinal birth control may help prevent painful migraines or even clear up embarrassing acne. Woman and men may be prescribed birth control medication if their bodies are growing too much body hair. Doctors largely agree that the pill can help protect women from both ovarian cancer and uterine cancer, such that the protective qualities increase the longer a woman takes the pill and last for years after a woman stops taking it.
Whatever the political discussion of the moment says about birth control pills, doctors have a host of reasons for prescribing it, even when pregnancy is not a factor. With dozens of pill choices on the market, women and their doctors can hopefully find an effective cocktail of hormones that can meet the individual patient’s needs—whether those needs include cancer prevention, treatment of an ovarian condition, or (of course) pregnancy prevention.