Story Narrated by Kristy Hutchings
We need more female-friendly birth control options…here’s why
At 13-years-old, Kitty Stegmann began taking the birth control pill. She, like many women, needed it to regulate her period.
But now, nearly a decade and five different birth control methods later, Stegmann has stopped using birth control altogether. “I’ve had some bad luck,” Stegmann said of her contraceptive trials. “I gave it a fair shot.”
Women and teenage girls have long lamented the side effects of birth control — with different variations, come different dreaded side effects. In some women, the pill can cause weight gain. In others, it’s been linked to higher risk for certain types of cancer. The arm implant can cause headaches, weight gain, acne, dizziness, mood disturbances, nausea, lower abdominal pain, hair thinning, and loss of libido. Intrauterine devices have a similar rap sheet, and may also become displaced in the uterus or migrate throughout the body cavity and damage other organs.
But despite the seemingly endless list of things that could potentially go wrong, a majority of women and girls in the U.S. choose to use contraception of some kind.
“I’ve had some bad luck,” Stegmann said of her contraceptive trials. “I gave it a fair shot.”
Michele Bratcher Goodwin, a professor at U.C. Irvine who is also the director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health, said that the historical position of women in the healthcare system still impacts the way women are treated by doctors today.
“It is important to understand that the roots of women’s rights in medicine begin with the abuse of African and indigenous women,” Goodwin said. “To consider rights, one must first acknowledge the absence of rights.”
Goodwin said that male-directed and dominated healthcare created “a spectrum of abuse and lack of quality care,” which has inspired health care agencies to think “about healthcare with a purposeful focus on women.”
Even so, many women are left wondering if there is a way to have a safe sex life without feeling miserable because of their birth control. “My gynecologists never made me feel like I had an option to not be on birth control as a sexually active female,” Stegmann said. “It was almost my responsibility.”
So, Stegmann stayed on the pill for a few years, until she realized it made her unhappy — she didn’t like the way she felt. On the advice of her gynecologist, she opted for an alternative, the birth control implant, which was embedded just beneath the skin of her upper arm.
The implant made Stegmann’s weight fluctuate wildly — she gained 30 pounds despite active exercise and dieting. “The doctors didn’t want to take it out of my arm even though I was severely unhappy,” she said. “I had to yell at my gynecologist to get it out.”
As soon as she got the arm implant removed, she quickly lost all the weight. Stegmann returned to the relative familiarity of the pill, albeit a different brand. She stayed on it into her senior year of college when she began to feel lethargic, lost her sex drive and her hair began to fall out.
“I don’t know what it was, I just knew something was off,” she said. “Basically what happened was that my body stopped making any natural hormones. So I didn’t have any estrogen or testosterone in me, only the estrogen that I was getting from the pill.”
After that, Stegmann decided to give her body a break. “I went off of everything for like a year,” she said. But Stegmann got nervous quickly — she was still sexually active and didn’t want to risk getting pregnant. “That’s when I decided to get the IUD,” she said.
“Basically what happened was that my body stopped making any natural hormones. So I didn’t have any estrogen or testosterone in me, only the estrogen that I was getting from the pill.”
“They’re convenient, last three to six years, and have a low side-effect profile,” said Dr. Sofia Rebeles, a gynecologist in Torrance. “They are the most effective form of long-acting reversible contraception available, with very low failure rates.”
Stegmann’s doctor told her much the same about IUDs. “They made me feel like it would be no symptoms,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, it’ll be a slight pinch, you might have tiny bleeding, it’ll only last like six weeks.’”
But just minutes after her IUD was inserted, Stegmann said that she began experiencing pain so severe that she couldn’t even drive herself home. She called the doctor to ask if this was normal and they said that she might be suffering from pseudo-contractions, a rare side effect of the IUD.
Dr. Rebeles said that some cramping after placement is common, but usually goes away within 24 hours. But Stegmann’s intense pain didn’t go away. “It stopped doing those really bad pains shocks after four months,” she said. “But the pain on my period and after sex happened every single time for 11 months.”
Doctor’s didn’t prepare her for such pain, Stegmann said, nor the potential side effects that came along with her hormonal IUD. But she didn’t want to get pregnant, either. “I just kept holding on to hope because it seemed like the perfect birth control option,” she said. “You don’t worry about it, it doesn’t affect your hormones too much, and I didn’t want to not be on anything.”
To put an end to the pain, Stegmann had it removed — nearly a year later. Stegmann has decided to stop using any birth control methods for the time being because her experiences have been so painful.
“I wish gynecologists would have more conversations about other symptoms of birth control, like your hormones getting out of whack, or your skin getting messed up, or the fact that your libido drops,” Stegmann said. “They just really play down, I think, some of the major symptoms.”
Dr. Rebeles said that women like Stegmann who experience side effects from several different birth control methods should “go to someone who listens and really investigates what the negative side effects were.”
If that doesn’t work, Rebeles said that condoms, spermicide, and natural family planning are available methods that do not require women to alter their chemistry in a way that could negatively impact their well-being.
“But those are obviously way less effective and not things I recommend,” said Rebeles. For those comfortable with a permanent form of birth control, tubal sterilization is an option. However, Rebeles said that “vasectomy is a way simpler and safer procedure than tubal sterilization is for a woman.”
Goodwin said that safety should be a priority in healthcare. “It is important to keep women healthy and safe — in all circumstances, including with regard to birth control,” she said. “That means research is important.
But until research and development have a more female-friendly birth control option to offer, women will have to continue to choose between comfort and contraception.
Words by Kristy Hutchings
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