The first birth control pill that is designed to stop menstrual cycles indefinitely was approved by the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) last month. Expected to be in stores this July, Lybrel is marketed as the "no period pill."
But this isn't exactly new information or technology. Despite the fact that this new product is the first FDA approved birth control pill for this purpose, health care providers have long known that other types of birth control can be used to skip periods. They have advised patients to just skip the placebo/spacer pills in certain types of birth control pills and start a new pack if they want to skip their period (similar to the pill, the birth control ring and the patch can also be used to skip periods).
Medically, there is no reason to have a monthly period when taking hormonal contraception—which prevents ovulation and build up of the uterine lining. The placebo/spacer week in pill packs were developed because pharmaceutical companies thought women would feel unsettled or unnatural not having their period. Women taking hormonal contraception experience withdrawal bleeding during the week of placebo pills because of the gap in hormones; taking the pills continuously eliminates the withdrawal bleeding.
Reaction has been mixed. Most women's health advocates see this as a minor step in expanding birth control options and a way to help women who experience difficult periods. The Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP) didn't even release a statement because Lybrel's approval wasn't big news. But RHTP's president, Kirsten Moore, said, "Any method that's been shown to be safe and effective and that can provide a woman with the option to prevent unintended pregnancy is good."
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Many conservative groups had knee-jerk reactions about the "unnaturalness" of skipping periods and lamenting the affront to fertility. (Watch the video of Leslie Unruh, President of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, debating Lybrel on Fox News—she calls birth control "pesticides" and accuses Big Pharma of "playing God.") These statements highlight the fact that these groups are opposed to contraception in the first place, regardless of whether it's designed to reduce or eliminate menses. (Along the same lines, some feminists have complained that Lybrel sends a negative message about menstruation.)
Following suit, the mainstream media has had a field day with Lybrel's approval, discussing the potential implications of women eliminating their menstrual cycle on society and family life, and how having a period affects their very identity as women. ABC News ran an article called "Gender Bender: Redefining the Curse of Menstruation. Women Reexamine Their Identities As They Embrace the New Pill." The New York Times wasn't as inflammatory, but still didn't get it right. William Saletan at Slate.com considered the possibility that some women would skip their periods "to satisfy other" like their boyfriends or coworkers. Reporters either didn't know or didn't care that they were buying into Lybrel's marketing hype and contributing to gender stereotypes.
Plan B experienced even greater negative reactions when it was approved by the FDA. Yet this also is not an altogether new technology—health care providers had previously been prescribing regular birth control pills as emergency contraception. If Plan B works like regular birth control, why all the fuss? Kirsten Moore explains:
I think it's a basic underlying understanding of anatomy; it was really hard for the public to understand that pregnancy doesn't happen in one moment—it's a process. In the cultural mindset, sex and pregnancy are one and the same, but biologically they're not. Also, a good chunk of the opposition to Plan B came from people who object to contraception. It took heavy education and basic information efforts, but once people understood that it worked like birth control, that opened doors.
As contraceptive technology advances, we will continue to see opposition to new methods. But at the heart of the matter is the fact that opponents don't want women to be able to use contraception at all.
Marcy Bloom, former executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center, adds:
As long as these "new" technologies truly support women's choices, health, and freedom, they need to be viewed as simply the innovative use of science to advance women's lives … and that is what we all want. Inserting right-wing anti-women's sexuality messages into the discussion demonstrates, yet again, the conservative agenda that points to their anti-contraception position and to the ultimate control of women.
We must continue to educate and work towards the right for everyone to decide for themselves whether and when to start a family. Plan B and Lybrel are simply two additional safe and effective methods for doing so.