Read the Fine Print: It Might Save Your Life

Cross-posted at Evil Slutopia

Yes, it’s true, we’re still talking about The American Life League’s The Pill Kills Women campaign. The actual protests were on June 6, but we’re still talking about it because there was just so much wrong with it that we couldn’t possibly fit it all into one blog entry. Every time we think we’re almost done, we click on a new page and find a whole new bunch of stupid. We’ve already addressed the ridiculous claim that the pill destroys relationships and the medical flaws in their argument (particularly, how the campaign exaggerates the risks of hormonal contraception as a scare tactic). This time I thought we’d take a quick look at some of the personal stories featured on the ALL’s website. Now before I start, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of these women’s deaths or show any disrespect to their memories. It may seem like I’m using them to make my point, but the fact is the American Life League is using them to push their agenda and that’s not right. Each of their deaths was a tragedy and it’s wrong for the ALL to twist these incidents for their own benefit.

Julie Hennessy’s Story:

On March 22 of last year, 31-year-old Julie Hennessy was found dead on the floor of her living room, Ireland Independent reports. Although she was a non-smoker of healthy weight, the woman had been taking the drug Mercilon for a number of years. This resulted in her developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition in which a blood clot forms in a deep vein usually in one of the appendages. As in the case of Miss Hennessy, a DVT can break off and lodge in the lungs, causing death.
After her inquest on Tuesday, Julie’s father Ray, speaking on behalf of his family his wife Angela and their two daughters-drew special attention to the fact that the pill was the main factor in the death of his daughter.
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Behind the Story:

This definitive pronouncement from the pathologist . . . who ruled out Hennessy’s knee injury while skiing earlier this year and the fact she had taken about 20 flights in the previous 18 months as contributory factors in her death . . . caused panic in the media. Hennessy had been taking the oral contraceptive Mercilon for a number of years prior to her death.

[…] All women are at risk of developing blood clots, and pregnant women more so, regardless of whether they are on the pill. Five in 100,000 women will develop blood clots and this risk increases to between 20 and 30 in 100,000 women on the pill, according to Dr Shirley McQuade, medical director of the Dublin Well Woman clinic. The risk of pregnant women developing blood clots is 50 in 100,000. But the development of a blood clot by no means ensures it will travel to the lungs causing DVT, McQuade stressed. "Blood clots generally start below the knee in the calf muscle. The risk of a blood clot travelling from there to the lung is between 2-3%. And even then, the risk of it being fatal is less again. The vast majority of blood clots don’t go anywhere. The woman’s death highlighted at the inquest was an extremely rare and unfortunate event."

[…]this was a rare isolated incident , while sections of the media seem to be over-emphasising the implications of this tragic death.

[Tribune ] (emphasis mine)

Tanya Hayes’ Story:

Tanya Hayes died on Monday from a pulmonary embolism – a blood clot in her lungs.
Having ignored symptoms, including "breathlessness" and "a nasty, hard cough" for about two weeks, she collapsed on Sunday night in a parking lot and was rushed to Angliss Hospital in Melbourne were she died five hours later.
The hospital’s director of emergency medicine, Associate Professor Graeme Thomson, said Tanya’s death had been "caused by blood clotting caused by factors related to taking the oral contraceptive pill", according to a report by Adelaide Now. [ ]

Behind the Story:

Busy working and studying, Ms Hayes had ignored symptoms including "breathlessness" and "a nasty, hard cough" for about a fortnight [two weeks]. […]The fine print in the packaging of Yasmin, the contraceptive medication Ms Hayes had been taking, lists "breathlessness" as a "very rare . . . very serious side effect". "If we had read the Pill’s directions more carefully . . . maybe we would still have Tanya here," Ms Hayes’s mother, Genevieve, said. […] Dr Shumack said deaths linked to hormonal contraception was "certainly a recognised event, but it’s extraordinarily rare".

[Herald Sun ] (emphasis mine)

Zakiya Kennedy’s Story:

Zakiya Kennedy, an aspiring model, approached a policeman in a New York Upper West side subway station. She complained of a severe pain in her head and leg and then collapsed. She died an hour later in hospital. New York medical examiners determined that the cause was blood clots.
Kennedy had switched from oral contraceptives to the patch about three weeks before her death and had not complained of any difficulties before calling on the policeman for help. The clots formed without her knowledge and she died when one entered her lungs.

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Behind the Story:

"Based on our best estimates — less than two per 100,000 women less than the age of 35" will die from complications of the patch , said Dr. Shaun Biggers of New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
The risk of death from pregnancy-related conditions is 15 times greater than the risk of death from the patch, Biggers said.
But the patch is heavily advertised on television with beautiful models touting how easy it is to use. And Biggers said she is concerned that not enough people know about the patch’s dangers.
"On some level, it may be a failure of the medical profession in terms of really informing patients," she said.[…]
Dr. Andrew Friedman, who heads the women’s health research unit at Ortho-McNeil, the patch’s manufacturer, says knowing the warning signs is important. They include leg pain, swelling, and shortness of breath. "It could be a sign of a potentially dangerous clot," he said.
Kennedy did have some of those symptoms. "She was complaining about pains in her leg or in her shoulder," her father said. "She thought it was from her exercising."
[…]Friedman says Ortho-McNeil does warn consumers in several different ways, including on a product insert.
"On TV, almost half of the time of the advertisement is devoted to talking about the potential risks and potential warning signs that women should be aware of," he said.
[ABC News ] (emphasis mine)

Now the American Life League is right about one thing. We should learn a lesson from the tragic stories of these women. They’re just wrong about what that lesson is. The ALL is trying to convince us that the pill is super dangerous and so we need to avoid it at all costs. That’s just not the case. Yes, people have died from complications associated with hormonal contraception… but it’s much rarer than the ALL would have us believe. The ALL wants to use these women’s deaths to try to eradicate the pill, but in reality we should be pushing for clearer warning labels and safer options and more access to education and information. (And by safer options I don’t mean abstinence! I mean there needs to be continued research on hormonal contraception – not to prove whether or not it’s dangerous, but to continue to improve it to the point where the risks are as minimal as possible).
The lesson we should actually learn from these tragic deaths, is how important it is to know the risks associated with any medication taken. Both Tanya Hayes and Zakiya Kennedy ignored their symptoms, mainly because they did not associate them with their contraceptives. If they had been more aware of the dangers and warning signs, they might have caught the problem before it was too late.
Women don’t need to be protected from birth control, but they do need to be educated about it. I’ve heard many women say "wow, my doctor never told me _______", and of course every doctor is different and none of them are perfect, they are human and do make mistakes, and some of them probably don’t always communicate with every patient as thoroughly as they could or should. But at the same time, prescription medications come with instructions and warning labels for a reason. You can’t trust your doctor to spoon-feed it to you (and you can’t take anything the ALL says as accurate medical advice). Women need to make sure they are in control of their bodies, aware of the risks, and making informed decisions about their health, and campaigns like "The Pill Kills" do absolutely nothing to help make that possible.

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