This reproductive health article needs a Reality Check

via RHReality Check.  In an article entitled “A Natural Alternative to the Pill?” a “social media professional/Twitter lover” who goes by the name “jaz” expresses some healthy skepticism about the outpouring of praise surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Pill.

Unfortunately, the article contains a lot of misinformation as well.  So, here’s a reality check.

First, Jaz claims that  “With the Pill off the table, we are left with very few options besides condoms (or diaphragms and cervical caps which are essentially out of existence and have lower effectiveness rates), or more permanent solutions like the IUD and sterilization which do not make sense for younger women or women who want to have children in the next few years.”

According to this table, male condoms have a 2% failure rate if used “perfectly” — i.e. every time a couple has intercourse, and the condom doesn’t break or fall off.  Diaphragms have a 6% failure rate.  IUDS are not the same as sterilization either.

Second, the article tries to suggest that herbal contraceptives are effective. Jaz discusses an herb called wild carrot (aka Queen Anne’s Lace) and mentions the work of Robin Rose Bennett which “has been surrounded by controversy and naysayers in her efforts to bring this to American women.”  Well, count me in as one of the naysayers.  Even Bennett says that her study was unscientific, i.e. was not a controlled clinical trial.  Her sample was also very small — only 13 women — and three of them became pregnant.  So far, not a good alternative to barrier methods.

Jaz implies that this natural remedy is safer than oral contraceptives.  According to Bennett, wild carrot is an estrogenic herb — in other words, it contains the same chemical as many birth control pills.  So, the same contraindications for use of oral contraceptives would apply to wild carrot.

The underlying assumption of the article is that natural remedies are safe because, hey, they’re natural.  Well, those who are looking to try this method on their own better be sure they can tell the difference between wild carrot and poison hemlock.  Even jaz says she’s “a little wary of making my own contraception, since it’s more serious than making a smoothie or a mojito, though I do want to experiment with my inner alchemist and my green thumb!”

She should be just as wary of herbal treatments prepared by so-called experts.  Since herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements,  they not regulated by the FDA as are drugs.  This means no one is checking to make sure the health claims are valid.  Also, there is no national system of licensure or certification for herbalists.  This means that anyone can hang out a shingle and call her/himself an herbalist.

[NB: if you take St. John’s Wort be aware that it can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives].

So, while I agree with jaz that “women deserve to have a wide range of options readily available to make the ideal decisions for their bodies and sexual health,” they also need accurate and reliable health information.  RHReality Check usually does this and gives guides on how to detect inaccurate information.  In their section, “Fact v. Fiction,” the editors write:

“One trademark of the far right is misinformation. They make ideology sound like fact, belief sound like scientific data. We bring you the most widely circulated fictions about reproductive health, and the facts and resources to dispute them. If you are confused about how to determine if a study is real, this primer provides you with a great framework to evaluate any research study you read.”

Too bad the editors of the site didn’t apply these same criteria to misinformation from the left.  Women deserve better.

Added later:  RHRealityCheck has reposted this entry on their website.  Please join the discussion.

Discloser: My research is funded by the National Library of Medicine and the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors Research Grant.  I have no financial ties to pharmaceutical companies of any kind.

2 thoughts on “This reproductive health article needs a Reality Check

  1. It is not clear to me if you are making this “herbal remedy” proponent a part of the “left” that the end of the posting suggests needs critical evaluation as well as the “right” (which lies easily and often). (I consider myself “left”.)

    I don’t see “alternative medicine” as a Left or Right issue, although my favorite radio station, WBAI, part of the Pacifica Network of community radio stations, has been linking “alternative” to “independent” media (which is incorrect to me). I support the “undo the coup” movement at WBAI, Also, the “alternative” health movement has been distanced from disability (to put it kindly). My observation is that we, disabled people represent a kind of failure
    for both the “alternative” and “traditional” medical practitioners.

    As someone with severe ME/CFS, I have a large dislike of so-called “alternative medicine”, having observed the hooey around the various names for herbalists, etc and such, in re my other disease, allergic asthma. (Hillary Johnson, in “Osler’s Web”, Crown Publishers, 1995 mentions the harmful history of “alternative medicine” for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The book is on the politics of one illness, not a “how to cope book”. My mother never took the disease as serious until she read the book and then apologized to me.)

    On birth control:
    I got pregnant in 1965 or 1966 due to a size change in my diaphragm and was pregnant during or right after my annual birth control checkup. I had adverse reactions from the pill and the birth control injections. The condom (despite allergy problems) was good in re STD prevention. My uterus is retired.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Yes, I was saying that jaz is a progressive on reproductive rights issue, but that her claims need to be critically evaluated in the same way we evaluate those from the right.

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