We Use Birth Control Pills But Not For Birth Control: A Mother and Her Teenage Daughter Speak
There was a time not that long ago when contraception was still a crime. In 1965 the Supreme Court ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that married women could use birth control legally. It’s taken many more years, amazingly, to legalize birth control for women and girls and we’re still fighting for full access.
The reasons why have everything to do with this country’s continued devotion to a patriarchal perspective in which women and girls are distrusted, our bodies feared. The anti-abortion movement is also an unabashed anti-contraception movement. Among the many consequences, the facts of women’s bodily functions remain hidden from societal view, framed as shameful. Women and girls are taught that the inner workings of the female body are to be regulated and in some cases despised: when and how we get pregnant, if we’re able to get pregnant, when we menstruate and how we deal with menstruation, or our experiences with reproductive health issues like endometriosis. Women’s and girls’ bodies are nuanced and unique and demand attention by the medical establishment to the collective and individual experiences. Yet we are continually denied the information and knowledge about our bodies and health that we deserve. It’s strange to have to be explicit about this but we are human beings each with our own ways of being and behaving in the world and to make the best decisions about our health and lives we need to be supported in openly, honestly and respectfully sharing information about the many ways in which our bodies function.
For example, while birth control is just that for some — a way to control one’s fertility — for others it acts as a tool to control painful periods, symptoms from endometriosis, migraines or to fight acne . In fact, 1.5 million women rely on birth control pills (also called oral contraceptives) for these “non-contraceptive” purposes. Yet, even as physicians prescribe birth control for a multitude of reasons, women and girls continue to fight for access and against the stigma society places on its use. When the pill is used or prescribed for medical conditions and not for standard birth control, it’s usually called “hormonal treatment.” Those who use the pill for these purposes are treated with a similar puritanical disdain typically reserved for women and girls who use it for family planning.
It’s often worse for young women. Teens who use the pill are more likely to use it for reasons other than birth control. In fact one out of every three young women use the pill for non-contraceptive purposes.
What follows is a short interview with a mother and daughter who have each needed to use oral contraceptives to treat distinct painful medical conditions and have had enough of the judgment. They dislike that these pills are known only as “birth control pills” since, for each of them, that is not what they use them for. Neither feels that there is anything wrong with using birth control to control fertility. The exhaustive judgment heaped upon women and girls is frustrating to navigate, especially when they aren’t using the pills for that purpose. At their request, they remain anonymous. Their stories will be familiar to many, I’m sure.
What are your ages?
15 and 50.
What do you use the pill for?
Daughter: Managing painful periods and hormones.
Mother: Over the years to help flush out ovarian cysts and to manage the onset of peri-menopause.
How long have you been using the pill?
Daughter: Twelve months.
Mother: I’m not currently using it; so on and off.
Have you ever felt stigmatized or frustrated by the response to using, discussing your use, or getting a prescription filled for the pill you take?
Daughter: When I broke my leg and was in the hospital. I was 14, and I had to list the prescriptions I was using, and when I said birth control the (male) doctor I was with at the time questioned why I was using it, my age, and gave me weird looks and made me explain why I was using it. It made me feel upset because the doctor was so uneducated about the different uses of the pill and because it’s embarrassing that I had to say birth control when I’m so young. I wished it had another name.
Mother: My experience is in getting her [my daughter’s] prescription filled. They ask her age and what you are picking up, it’s not discreet, they look twice when you say birth control. It always feels aggressive and with a big dose of judgement. So much so that I no longer bring [my daughter] with me to the pharmacy.
Would you like to change the name of the pill (and why)?
Daughter: Yes, because by having it only associated with one use it doesn’t take into account all the other ways it’s used.
Mother: Yes, but not only the name. It needs to be changed in practice. How it is prescribed, in what format, etc. For example, pills are still given in the format of the little monthly packet with placebo pills. This is wasteful and unnecessary when using for a three month on/one week off plan and insurance companies will often count all the pills in the packet, including the placebo, so at some point you think you want to refill sooner than you need.
What’s wrong with the terminology we use for these pills?
Daughter: For the people who use it for other uses — when you get prescriptions or go to the doctor — uneducated people will make assumptions about you that aren’t true.
Mother: It can feel demoralizing. Our limited reference point as something to control birth keeps the conversation about sex and does not allow for the celebration of women through the many stages of life we experience.
Are there other changes you’d like to see to the ways in which we deal with girls and women who take these pills?
Both: More education for health care professionals who in turn can more effectively care for us in a progressive and relevant way.
Is the problem with the name (birth control pills) or is it with the way in which our culture views and treats the idea of women using birth control?
Mother: I think if you look at the history of the pill, how it’s used, how we deny this right to women and still debate it, what you see is a conversation that is not focused on the rights and welfare of girls and women. It does not feel as progressive as it should. It’s wrapped up in shame.
Would you like to say something to other young women who use pills for reasons other than (or in addition to) birth control?
Daughter: I would want to tell them to educate themselves and get the support they need.
Are you a young woman needing more information about the birth control pill (or any form of contraception)? Check out Planned Parenthood.
You can find more information on state laws and policies surrounding teens and contraception, here.