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Healthcare’s Over-Reliance On Contraceptives Is Hiding A Bigger Problem

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC London chapter.

It’s not every day that you end up in the A&E because of a case of acne – but I think this shows a persisting problem in the world of female healthcare. Let me explain.

As many women do, I have been one of those unfortunate enough to suffer from a mild yet persisting case of acne. I’m sure many in my place also looking for acne treatments have stumbled upon the contraceptive pill touted as a wonder cure. At least that’s what my doctor told me, and so, after years of looking for a solution to no avail, I figured – why not?

This was the summer before my year abroad in Florence, hoping to look my best to match the impeccably dressed Florentines. Throughout my time in Italy, I dutifully took the pill, and to my relief, the pill did indeed work as promised by my doctor. That is, until one seemingly normal night in my flat, I realised I had lost the ability to talk.

After a bumpy ambulance ride to the A&E over the uneven cobblestoned streets, it was revealed to me that what I had just experienced was a stroke. Luckily, it was mild enough that I have made a full recovery. Still, it led me to discover that I am one of those few people who are not compatible with the pill; and, they told me, this isn’t particularly rare. If people like me are surprisingly common, why was the pill the first thing recommended to me?

My case of actually experiencing a stroke is still decidedly a rare one, and my aim is not to scare people off the pill. Rather, I think it points to an even bigger problem–women’s health is more likely to be trivialised due to a lack of research, and contraceptives are often used as a plaster to hide rather than treat hormonal problems.

Ever since its introduction to society in 1960, the pill was seen as a symbol of female sexual liberation – there is no doubt that it has allowed women to enhance their careers and have better control over their lives. As it quickly gained popularity, researchers learned more about the mechanisms of the pill, realising it can be used to treat other hormonal problems, such as alleviating the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, not to mention others such as hormonal acne. Prescribing contraceptives for other ailments quickly became the norm; in fact, a report shows that about 58% of current contraceptive users are using them not just to prevent pregnancy, but to also treat other hormonal symptoms.

Hormonal contraceptives do indeed alleviate symptoms associated with many hormone-related problems, but by no means do they fix the underlying problem – rather, the cocktail of hormones in contraceptive pills provides a temporary solution by synthetically balancing the hormones that, by some hidden cause, has been pushed off balance. In many cases, further tests and treatment should be done to fix this hidden cause – yet since there is such a lack of research in this area, physicians simply don’t know how to properly deal with them. This illuminates the true problem – female reproductive healthcare has barely progressed over these past decades.

Women have, perhaps since the institutionalisation of the medical sciences, consistently been side-lined from research and studies related to female health have been underfunded. Women and female animals are most commonly excluded from research due to a reluctance on the researchers’ part to account for and to investigate the variability that comes with women’s hormonal cycles. This treatment of women’s hormonal cycles as a complication worth ignoring just points to the very root of the problem – are these features not the ones that require the most investigation? Yet less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated solely to female reproductive health, despite the fact that one in three women in the UK will experience a reproductive problem in their lifetime.

It is also seen that in the case of diseases that primarily affect one gender, in nearly three-quarters of cases, the diseases that affect men are overfunded, while ‘female diseases’ are severely underfunded. In fact, one study found that there is five times more research into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than into PMS, which affects 90% of women.

The reality is that physicians don’t know how to properly treat reproductive problems because there is simply no knowledge of it – all they know to do is prescribe contraceptives, ignoring the true underlying issues at play by masking our symptoms. My argument is not, by any means, against the use of the pill for hormonal problems.  Rather, this is a call to the healthcare system to start taking women’s health more seriously. Until more research is done, our problems will continue to be inadequately treated.

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Emma Copsey

UC London '23

Emma studies Arts and Sciences, focusing on anthropology and physics. She loves all things knitting and crocheting, and is passionate about anything art-related.