When birth control isn’t for birth control

In 1957, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first birth-control pills, it wasn’t for birth control. The contraceptives won approval as a treatment for severe menstrual disorders; temporary infertility was a side effect. Funny, women across the country suddenly started complaining in droves about severe menstrual disorders.

As religiously-affiliated organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, continue to complain about federal policies that would require that health insurance cover family planning (President Obama worked out a compromise deal under which the insurance companies would absorb the cost, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops still sees this as undue interference), one issue hasn’t come up much: What about when birth control isn’t for birth control?

Since the 1950s, medicine has found many uses for what are still generally called oral contraceptives, although they now come in other forms such as implants and patches. At the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver this year, a researcher outlined the medical advantages for certain women. (Note: The pill also is linked to medical risks.)

It appears to be protective against endometrial and ovarian cancer, and the longer women take it, the greater the benefit in this regard.


They are used to treat ovarian cysts, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, breakthrough bleeding and painful menstrual periods.

Why shouldn’t women who suffer from these very real ailments have access to appropriate medication? Not to mention women for whom pregnancy itself is medically dangerous?

It could be argued that religious organizations should have to provide coverage of oral contraceptives only for non-family-planning uses. But this takes us back to the early history of the pill in this country. Women who want to make their own choices about their reproductive futures will start claiming one of the related conditions, and they will find sympathetic doctors to go along.

But even if that weren’t true, do we want to give employers the right to interfere in their employees’ privacy to the point of finding out exactly why those employees are taking certain medications? And if we do that for contraceptives, do we then allow it for all the prescriptions and medical procedures American workers seek?



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