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What We Still Have To Learn After All These Years On The Pill

A circular birth control container with pills
Bruce Blaus
/
Wikimedia Commons
Increasing access and education about birth control is an ongoing effort for reproductive rights organizations.

Host Anita Rao gets some sex-ed about hormonal birth control and side effects...and dives into reproductive justice history and efforts underway to bring male hormonal birth control to the market.

When the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put a pause on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate instances of blood clots, social media blew up with discussions of...birth control. Many compared the risk of clotting from the vaccine to the risk of clotting from the hormonal birth control pill. Though the comparison lacks some needed nuance and requires more understanding, it shed a light on what we’d like to know more about when it comes to birth control.

Host Anita Rao talks about education and access to birth control with Dr. Rathika Nimalendran, a family medicine physician with a rural community health center, medical director of Chatham county health department, and abortion provider with planned parenthood south Atlantic; and Imani Gandy, senior editor of Law and Policy for Rewire News Group and co-host of the podcast Boom! Lawyered, also joins to talk about birth control history and legislation.

Rao also talks with Dr. Stephanie Page about research into male hormonal birth control that would increase options for people who create sperm to use contraceptives. Dr. Page is a professor of medicine in lipid research at the University of Washington. She is also the co-director of the UW Medicine Diabetes Institute and head of the Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology and Nutrition.

Interview Highlights

Dr. Rathika Nimalendran on why people have been comparing the risks blood clotting from the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to risks of blood clotting from the birth control pill:

One of the reasons that we see these memes and these graphics is: Women's health, women's reproductive health, has always been kind of second place in healthcare. ... And we often expect women to deal with the side effects, to put up with the adverse effects because we've always been second class citizens. So I think that's a lot of why those graphics came out. Not that your risk of actually developing a blood clot while being on the birth control pill is very high, but just like, let's look at this comparison. People are freaking out about this vaccine, but pretty much any medication you take has a risk of an adverse effect.

Imani Gandy on reproductive rights history and Margaret Sanger, one of the pioneers:

[Margaret Sanger] was a very complicated figure, but she's definitely viewed as the foremother of birth control. And in her role as the foremother of birth control, she had no problem aligning herself with people who didn't really have women's interest in mind, who were more concerned about stopping certain people from procreating and encouraging other people to procreate. They wanted to stop Black, brown poor people from procreating and encourage wealthy, white women — or even not even wealthy, middle class, just well-to-do — white women to procreate. And so that's sort of where her birth control advocacy falls.

Dr. Stephanie Page on how a male hormonal contraceptive topical gel would work:

Male hormonal contraception works very similarly to female contraception except, instead of giving estrogen, we give the men testosterone. ... The hormones are absorbed by the man, and they block the signals from the brain to, in this case, the testicles that are required for the sperm to mature. … And so by providing the testosterone in the gel, that works to stop the man making his own testosterone. But he's got plenty of testosterone in his blood, so that he feels the normal male effects of testosterone, which can include things like libido, issues with mood, supporting male pattern hair growth and so forth. The beauty of the whole thing is, is when they stop using the gel, they actually have their fertility come back. So the whole thing is reversible.

Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.