Magazine article The Spectator

Unhappy Pill

Magazine article The Spectator

Unhappy Pill

Article excerpt

A new study shows that women taking hormonal contraceptives have a greater risk of depression. Why isn't this more of a scandal?

A study came out last week that should have caused great alarm. For 13 years, researchers at the University of Copenhagen studied more than a million women between the ages of 15 and 34 who were taking a type of drug -- one that is popular in all developed countries. Taking this drug, the researchers found, correlated with an increase in the risk of depression. The correlation was particularly strong in adolescent girls, who showed an 80 per cent higher chance of being diagnosed with depression.

Usually when a story about women's health and depression breaks, a phalanx of activists and campaigners pop up all over the media to 'raise awareness' of the issue. Last week, however, barely a peep -- the papers carried the story and a few online sites ran delicately objective surveys of women on the pill, but there were few howls of outrage.

Why the muted response? The answer is that the type of drug in question was hormonal contraception, and it is today a sin just to suggest that it may not be the greatest gift ever given to womankind. Almost everybody agrees that female contraceptives -- pills, implants, patches or intrauterine devices -- have liberated us; set us free to be sexually active human beings. Few dare raise concerns about that, because to do so is to risk being called a prude, and nobody wants that.

There are plenty of questions to be asked, though. Not least because 3.5 million British women are on the combined contraceptive pill -- known as the 'Pill' -- and the study showed that those who take it were 23 per cent more likely to be on antidepressants -- possibly taking pills to cope with the Pill.

Many of my friends are on the Pill. We started taking it towards the end of our teenage years, prescribed by the NHS, and lots of us have continued to use it for the past decade. It has certainly done its job; we are now reaching the final years of our twenties, and not one of us has had a baby. I suppose that's progress, of a sort. We've spent a large chunk of the most fertile period in our life taking state funded contraception. Only time will tell how fondly we look back on that fact.

The advent of the Pill, which first came to Britain in the 1960s, is not just regarded as a medical breakthrough. The Pill is the great turning point of the sexual revolution; a Great Leap Forward for equality. It enabled women to take control of their bodies, whatever that means.

Children are now taught about reproduction from a very young age, and sex education is compulsory from the age of 11. Around the age of 16 -- the legal age of consent -- school nurses start circling, terrified that their sexually aware charges will get knocked up. Doctors' appointments are booked, prescriptions are issued, and before long teenage girls are popping a little pill every morning as they brush their teeth.

To start with, girls were often put on a cheap one, such as Microgynon. If you reacted badly, you were given the chance to try a more expensive version. There seemed to be little method behind each prescription. It was trial and error, trial and error, until you found a pill that didn't make you cry for days or turn you into a porker.

Most young women are familiar with the arguments for taking the Pill; we were taught them early on. It prevents unwanted pregnancies and abortions. …

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