Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Are you Sure it’s for you?
By Jane Bennett & Alexandra Pope
Allen & Unwin
Paperback, May 2008, ISBN: 9781741750799, 324 pages
When I first began reading The Pill, I was just mildly curious. As a mid-life woman who had been taking the pill for some years, I felt that the book had some relevance to me. The last time I’d tried to give up the pill and replace it with an alternative method of birth control, I was talked out of it by my gynaecologist, who told me that the Pill was the best method and that everything else was substandard. I felt some disquiet about the notion of continually putting hormones into my healthy body, but decided to listen to him. Bennett & Pope made me think again.
Although nearly any doctor you speak to will tell you that the modern pill is a very low dose, and that it’s absolutely safe, Bennet & Pope present a number of studies that have linked the pill with depression, moodiness, weight gain, brittle bones, low libido, nutritional difficulties, and even a very recent death. This isn’t the first time either that the pill has been linked with death. In chapter 8 of The Pill the authors look at the link between the pill and thrombosis, stroke, heart attack and Cancer, and find some reasonably significant correlations, particularly for those with a wide range of pre-existing conditions (the list is nearly a page long!). Contraindications are extensive, and few people are told how many different drugs not only interfere with the Pill’s effectiveness, but are also interfered with by the pill, sometimes in tragic ways. It’s commonsense that anything strong enough to interrupt a woman’s normal hormonal cycle would be strong enough to have at least some side effects, and certainly, medical research aside, there is a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest that side effects from the pill are very common.
The book takes a holistic approach to womens’ health and menstruation, and looks at the ways in which the pill works, dissecting and explaining its hormonal effects, and then looks at evidence around the negative effect of the pill. It’s eye-opening reading, but The Pill isn’t all negative. A range of alternatives are presented, including barrier methods, spermicides, and the IUD. They also provide another method which I really wasn’t aware of, but which is a superb alternative: Fertility Awareness. There are a few different methods of Fertility Awareness around, and not all of them will be right for everyone – most rely on the combination of charting body temperature and cervical mucus to determine exactly what is happening in your body. In other words, and forgive me if this strikes you as revolutionary, to accept our cycles as completely natural, and begin working with them. It’s more fussy than simply swallowing a daily pill or having an annual implant, but it’s also significantly more empowering, as it allows you to have a deep understanding of exactly what is happening in your body throughout your cycle. You’re no longer suppressing your hormones, but instead, are working with them, using your varying energy levels, and taking time out when necessary for optimal well-being. I have to say that I was astonished that I never knew this stuff as it’s the most basic science that has been known for millennium. We’re not talking about “alternative medicine” here — it’s just simple biology.
Even more astonishing to me was the resistance I received from both the medical profession, who told me very clearly that the diaphragm was passé (it is as effective as the Pill if you use it properly), that the IUD was only effective with slow release hormones (that isn’t true, although there are side effects to the IUD), and that there were really no other effective methods of birth control aside from sterilisation. In other words, I was strongly discouraged from going off the Pill, and the difficulties (and expense) I had to go through to get a diaphram, and find a local Natural Fertility counsellor were ridiculous. It’s enough to make you suspect some kind of medical conspiracy, or at least to take note of how much of a stake the pharmaceutical industry has in ensuring that women remain on their product, regardless of the risks. This is also addressed in the book.
The book looks directly at ways in which to make use of the variations in mood and energy that occur within each monthly cycle, and also how to deal with some of the negative aspects like cravings, breakouts, cramps, and crankiness, using diet (the miso soup suggestion really works), and exercise. The Pill is an excellent book that every woman on the pill should read. It may not have quite the impact on you that it has on me: you may not decide to flush those synthetic hormones, visit a Natural Fertility clinic and change your life, though I can certainly vouch for the improved sense of well-being that such a change can make. I’d go so far as to suggest that Natural Fertility and a deep understanding of our bodies should be part of every school curriculum from around grade 6 or 7 (11/12 yrs), and I’m thankful that my daughter can now grow up with a better sense of her body than I did. But just knowing more about a drug that many of us take regularly for a large proportion of our lives, is a step in the right direction. It’s important that we don’t make decisions about our bodies based on what will benefit drug company shareholders. There’s far too much at stake. The Pill is one of those books that has the potential to pull off the smokescreen and show that there’s a lot more to the Pill than most people have been told. If you’re a woman and you’re on the Pill, this is a book you should read.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.