This Is The Life: Drop the pill

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With Valentine's Day fast approaching it's time to talk about something intimate and meaningful - like contraception. You'll have to excuse a pregnant woman for sounding jaded, it's just that the most romantic thing that's likely to happen to me on the 14th involves outsize winceyette pyjamas. Now, most of you will be hoping to get your jollies without ending up in a maternity ward in November, but that may not always be the case. And at that point you may wish that you hadn't spent so much of your life ingesting the oral contraceptive pill. New research by Professor Stephen Killick shows women who've been taking the pill can take significantly longer to get pregnant than women who haven't. The longer you take it, the longer it can take for your system to regain its natural rhythm - which could prove alarming if you're over 35.

With Valentine's Day fast approaching it's time to talk about something intimate and meaningful - like contraception. You'll have to excuse a pregnant woman for sounding jaded, it's just that the most romantic thing that's likely to happen to me on the 14th involves outsize winceyette pyjamas. Now, most of you will be hoping to get your jollies without ending up in a maternity ward in November, but that may not always be the case. And at that point you may wish that you hadn't spent so much of your life ingesting the oral contraceptive pill. New research by Professor Stephen Killick shows women who've been taking the pill can take significantly longer to get pregnant than women who haven't. The longer you take it, the longer it can take for your system to regain its natural rhythm - which could prove alarming if you're over 35.

Quelle surprise. I've long believed, as some IoS readers may recall (I crave forgiveness for revisiting the topic), that the pill is not quite the groundbreaking wonder-drug that most medics would have us believe. I am certain that in future eons historians will view the 20th century's blanket attempts to chemically curtail the fertility of women as being as barbarian and misguided as foot-binding. The late Elspeth Huxley, author of The Flame Trees of Thika and an expert on cattle, predicted long before the BSE crisis that turning cows into carnivores by giving them feed made with animal parts was bound to end in tears. I feel exactly the same about the notion of feeding the most hormonally sensitive and wayward creatures on God's earth large amounts of manufactured hormones. There's bound to be some fall-out, even if we're not talking about the most serious, known, increased risks associated with the pill - such as blood-clots and strokes.

Most of my female colleagues think the benefits outweigh the risks, but then they're in their twenties where convenience is everything and few woes strike you as deadlier than cramps and PMT. The latest miracle contraceptive, Seasonale, has been hailed as "the ultimate lifestyle pill" (doesn't the very word "lifestyle" make you want to puke?) because you take it for 84 days in a row, meaning that the ultra-busy woman of today need not bleed more than four times a year. Thus today's professional female can decide, as one user put it, that "between swimming, fishing, raising a nine-year-old and working," there's no time to "waste a few days every month feeling bloated and cranky".

Now, we all use the too-busy excuse, as in I'm too busy to: go to the gym/learn French/change TV channels/make you a Valentine's card etc. But too busy to bleed? How much effort does it take to shove a pad or tampon up your gusset? And as for the ill temper, I always viewed my periods as akin to a regular session with a punch-bag: a chance to vent pent-up aggression in a pleasingly self-righteous manner, because, "I'm SUFFERING, do you understand?" Three or four days' steadfast vitriol can be terribly cleansing for the soul - the very thing that enables you to be Sukie Sunbeam the rest of the month.

That's not to say I don't have sympathy for the small proportion of women who are genuinely incapacitated by menstruation; I wish them every and any wonder modern science can provide. But for most of us the pain is nothing that a pack of Nurofen wasn't invented to solve.

What I really object to is the way modern medicine is geared to make women think of both menstruation and fertility as the ghastliest of burdens, to be chemically eradicated ASAP. From their teens onwards, any female who consults a doctor about anything, even a verruca, gets asked if she's on the pill. If not, why not? There's no proposing of alternatives or discussion of drawbacks. Nor are young females illuminated on the general subject of their fertility. Nobody trusts girls enough to tell them they're only going to get up the duff when they're ovulating, in case the little sex beasts get out of hand. Better to stuff them full of chemicals, fill them with the fear of God, and take no chances.

I took the morning-after pill three times in my early twenties and only realised much later there had been no need. As a Catholic colleague says, "In your youth you think you should be on the pill, use condoms and maybe get sterilised, just in case." And no one disabuses you. No one tells you you're going to spend your thirties racked with anxiety in case you don't get pregnant.

Meanwhile the medics spin on. Dr William Parker, a leading US fertility expert, says there's "no reason" to believe there would be ill effects from Seasonale, before adding reassuringly that "long-term studies have yet to be done". The lone voice of dissent comes from Dr Susan Rako, author of No More Periods. She says of Seasonale, "We cannot even know or even imagine what the serious consequences of menstrual suppression will be, because the complexity of hormones' effects upon one another and upon every organ system in the body is far from fully understood."

Quite. And on that note, I just hope your hormones behave this Valentine's.

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