Contraception and the Other “C’ Word

Call it birth control or call it contraception – or maybe you prefer the term “family planning”.

However you label it, the subject has come up for renewed debate and predictable controversy in this year’s election cycle.

As uncomfortable as I am – as a man – discussing something as innately feminine as birthing, the political and moral debate is missing a key element that’s health-related and, therefore, requiring of this article.

I recently found some thought-provoking contradictions in my local newspaper – (what’s a “newspaper”, you ask?) – that might help broaden the debate beyond the usual partisan prism of point-counterpoint.

So despite these shark-infested waters, let’s have a go at it.

Economics, Morality…and Cancer?

Joanna Weiss’ piece (“Contraception, the economic miracle drug”, 3/12/2012) in The Boston Globe argued the economic savings attributable to birth control, while a study reported in the same issue (“Tale of a Dangerous Gene”) found an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers in women with the BRCA gene who practice birth control.

Other research documents that women who never gave birth – or who give birth later in life – are also at increased risk for at least breast cancer. The link between the evolutionary mandate to procreate and female longevity seems well-established.

Indeed, the primary sex hormones for both men and women – testosterone and estrogen – appear to provide protective benefit for both sexes.

For women, birthing appears to produce natural biological responses that protect not just the fetus, but also the mother – and for long after the child’s birth. Man-made interference with that evolutionary mandate – independent of religious, moral or other judgmental considerations – seems to hasten women’s demise.

No Rush to Judgment

Putting Rush Limbaugh’s despicable accusations aside – and moral and religious protests with them – there’s this most practical, and personal, of considerations: the mounting evidence of harmful physical consequences, for many women,  from avoiding childbirth.

We can only speculate at this point about whether this danger is greater for women who’ve never given birth vs. those who’ve borne children already. The latter, however,  have presumably already gained some of this protective benefit.

So the potentially harmful long-term effects of avoiding childbirth may not apply to women who’ve already borne children (see our Be Healthy posts for other health-promoting behaviors).

Nor does it suggest this applies to all women. Having recently attended a funeral for a childless woman who survived to 103 reminds me there are always exceptions to what even the best evidence suggests are the probabilities, but never the certaintites.

Such is the nature of all evidence, for there’s little in life that’s certain.

Making FULLY Informed Decisions

This is no argument for taking this decision away from women, as some would have it.

Indeed, the rampant risks of injury from medical interventions is a core theme of Our Healthcare Sucks, so it would be hypocritical and inconsistent for me to advocate medical interventions of any kind without the most serious of deliberation.

But this intensely personal – and often agonizing – decision may need to be re-framed in less black-and-white terms.

If nothing else, women of reproductive age should at least be aware they may pay a steep price for whatever short–term benefits they realize from these decisions.

In this age of instant gratification, of course, long-term thinking is going the way of disco and bell bottoms.

But not for everyone. Those who eschew junk food and other deadly conveniences are capable of complex thoughts, after all. They’re able to recognize not everything is black-and-white.

In short, the argument that contraception is about women’s health is correct – just maybe not in the exact way it’s intended.

This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice, and should not be construed as such.
John Lynch: John Lynch was founder and CEO of Medical Diagnostics, Inc. - twice named to Business Week's "Best Small Companies" in America. He's since founded MedSmart Members to publish consumer health education publications.
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