• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

In the 1970s, women booed the idea of a male pill. Have we finally changed our minds? | Zoe Williams


Dec 27, 2023

A new male pill is about to begin UK trials – while women are rethinking the long dismissed side-effects of oral contraception

“I feel the same about the pill as I do about the Beatles,” one woman in her 30s told the Times earlier this year. “If I’d been around at the time they first came out, maybe I’d appreciate them more.” This distils so much about the dynamic between doctors, pharma, patients and society in constructing the acceptable trade-offs of contraception: when the pill became available on the NHS in 1961, side-effects simply weren’t relevant. The calamity of unwanted pregnancy, which had beset the species since the dawn of time, had been solved, by raw ingenuity. In terms of the difference it made to the human experience, and this was very much framed as the female experience, the pill was considered one of medicine’s most seismic advances. So what if it gave you mood swings, headaches, acne, or caused you to gain weight? That would be like complaining you were travel sick on the Apollo 13.

Scrolling forward 60 years, the pill is still the most popular form of birth control in the UK (in 2018, 28% of women took it; 27% used a condom) and the progestogen-only pill is now available over the counter. Yet those early assumptions, that no amount of adverse effects couldn’t be weathered, appear to be increasingly rejected by young women. Earlier this year, Davina McCall continued her crusade for more openness around women’s health with a documentary about the pill, in which she surveyed 4,000 women who were on it. An incredible 77% of them had experienced some side-effects, including depression and loss of libido, and one third had stopped taking it as a result. That polling data has not been replicated, and a new mood of distrust towards oral contraception has yet to show up in the data. It reveals itself instead in TikTok content, where women decry the paucity of research into hormonal contraceptives: there were 20 to 25 clinical trials between 2017 and 2020, set against more than 3,000 for cancer drugs in 2019 alone.


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