Sex without fear: the real reason why we love the Pill

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The Independent Online

For a product that has changed so many women's lives for the better, the contraceptive pill has had a terrible press in recent years.

For a product that has changed so many women's lives for the better, the contraceptive pill has had a terrible press in recent years. It has been blamed for falling birth rates, the declining popularity of marriage, turning women into sex objects, low sperm counts and global warming. (OK, I made the last bit up, but it has been accused of feminising fish.)

Last week, in another blow to its credibility, the Pill was effectively put on trial by more than 100 British women who claim it has had disastrous effects on their health. They are asking for £10m in compensation from three pharmaceutical companies.

This is nothing new. When I started taking the Pill in the 1970s, it was already known that it might cause blood clots in a small number of cases. But potentially damaging side-effects were not the only reason for suspicion about what was then a relatively new method of contraception. Oral contraceptives have been under attack since the day the first pills were handed over the pharmacy counter, and the hostility came as much from feminists as anyone else. Some of them believed it took away a woman's right to say "no", while conspiracy theorists viewed it as part of a male plot to control women's fertility. The first feminist articles attacking the Pill appeared as early as the 1960s, and Germaine Greer returned to the fray in her book The Change in 1991, claiming that the Pill "still makes women feel anything from slightly less to intolerably less than well".

This is certainly not my experience and it is hard to avoid the conclusion, as headlines in last week's papers focused on serious health effects among a minority of women, that people have forgotten what life was like before oral contraception became available. It wasn't just that the Pill took away the fear of unwanted pregnancies, back-street abortions and the stigma of having an illegitimate baby, although it did all that for women who thrived on it. It also placed women's fertility in their own hands, removing the need to negotiate with partners about using condoms or other less reliable methods of contraception. This was a revolution in the way women thought about their bodies, even if the Aids virus eventually forced a rethink about the advantages of barrier methods.

The women who brought last week's court case, and the families of seven women who died after taking third-generation pills, claim that they caused deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, strokes and cerebral vein thrombosis. These are frightening conditions, and no doubt women who have heard about the lawsuit are considering giving up their medication. In 1995, after a scare linking these pills to blood clots, thousands threw away their foil strips, and the number of abortions soared. Yet the latest court case is not so much about the safety of third-generation pills as whether the women who took them were informed about risks to their health.

Millions of women have been prescribed contraceptive pills without suffering serious side-effects, as the Government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said last week. He issued a statement, insisting that the Pill has an excellent safety record and pointing out that a pregnant woman is more than twice as likely to develop a blood clot than is a woman taking third-generation pills. The majority of women are safer using oral contraception, in other words, than if they get pregnant. And when anti-Pill campaigners talk about "ruined lives", they should remember the millions of women who have benefited from artificial hormones. My generation was one of the first to be able to enjoy sex without fear, and to decide when to have children, and I am eternally grateful for it.

Good for gold-diggers and baby-snatchers

When an older woman marries a much younger man, people make nasty remarks about the bride qualifying for a bus pass. When a younger woman marries a much older man, people make nasty remarks about the bride being a gold-digger. Either way it's always the woman who gets it in the neck, which is why I would like to propose a toast to Joan Collins and Anna Nicole Smith. Collins, who recently married a stage producer who is 32 years her junior, brushed off gossip about the age difference last week: "So if he dies, he dies," she said philosophically.

Smith, who was 26 when she married J Howard Marshall, an 89-year-old oil tycoon, has just won a £64m settlement from her husband's estate. Her stepson, Pierce Marshall, spent seven years trying to deny her a share, partly on the grounds that she spent much of her 14-month marriage shopping. Sorry, but isn't that the point of marrying a stupendously wealthy older man? There is no evidence that the marriage was unhappy; on the contrary, in a country where every second marriage ends in divorce, this one seems to have suited both parties very well. It's a shame that Smith had to wait so long for what was hers by right, and I hope she spends the rest of her life in retail therapy.

A beige world in need of a makeover

Astronomers in Maryland made a grovelling apology last week, after admitting they had made a mistake about the colour of the universe. After announcing confidently in January that it was somewhere between turquoise and aquamarine, they subsequently discovered a glitch in their computer program. The real answer, they now tell us, is beige. This is yet another devastating blow for all followers of monotheistic religions. Give the Supreme Being even more colours than graced Michelangelo's palette, and the only thing he can come up with is magnolia.

Parents do know best, sometimes

Another tragic case that ended up in court last week involved a baby who was born with half her facial features missing. The three-month-old girl was brought to Britain by her parents, who objected to the treatment proposed by doctors at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. They argued that the procedure surgeons wished to carry out to assist her breathing was unnecessary and invasive. The hospital said it was essential, and the infant ended up under a police protection order while arrangements were made for a hearing at the High Court in Leeds. In the event, the parents agreed to the operation, but not before heart-wrenching pictures of the child had appeared in the media.

The case has superficial similarities to that of the conjoined twins from Malta, who were separated against the parents' wishes after another court hearing. But there are differences. There was no doubt, in the earlier case, that surgery was essential if either of the children was to survive, whereas the parents in Newcastle claimed to be following the advice of doctors who had cared for the baby in Saudi Arabia.

I don't assume that parents know what is best for their children, especially when they are in shock over the birth of a baby with congenital abnormalities that will require years of surgery. But it is not clear why the hospital acted with such haste, exposing the family to the glare of publicity. Their situation is difficult enough without undermining their trust in social workers and the NHS at this early stage.

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