Giving Rewire a Reality Check on Alternative Contraception


In “A Natural Alternative to the Pill?” the writer expresses some healthy skepticism about praise for the Pill, but the article contains a lot of misinformation. So, here’s a reality check.

This response to an article published yesterday by Jaz was originally published by hmprescott at her blog, and linked in an Rewire diary. We feel it is important to profile it here.

Note to readers: The Editors agree with concerns about the scientific viability/efficacy of the method described in the article critiqued here. In this case, however, we provided leeway for the original author to make her case, anticipating that it would spark a healthy and respectful discussion about efficacy and methods.  We encourage others to weigh in.

In an article entitled “A Natural Alternative to the Pill?” a “social media professional/Twitter lover” who goes by the name “jaz” expresses some healthy skepticism about the outpouring of praise surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Pill.

Unfortunately, the article contains a lot of misinformation as well.  So, here’s a reality check.

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First, Jaz claims that  “With the Pill off the table, we are left with very few options besides condoms (or diaphragms and cervical caps which are essentially out of existence and have lower effectiveness rates), or more permanent solutions like the IUD and sterilization which do not make sense for younger women or women who want to have children in the next few years.”

According to this table, male condoms have a 2 percent failure rate if used “perfectly” — i.e. every time a couple has intercourse, and the condom doesn’t break or fall off.  Diaphragms have a 6 percent failure rate.  IUDS are not the same as sterilization either.

Second, the article tries to suggest that herbal contraceptives are effective. Jaz discusses an herb called wild carrot (aka Queen Anne’s Lace) and mentions the work of Robin Rose Bennett which “has been surrounded by controversy and naysayers in her efforts to bring this to American women.”  Well, count me in as one of the naysayers.  Even Bennett says that her study was unscientific, i.e. was not a controlled clinical trial.  Her sample was also very small — only 13 women — and three of them became pregnant.  So far, not a good alternative to barrier methods.

Jaz implies that this natural remedy is safer than oral contraceptives.  According to Bennett, wild carrot is an estrogenic herb — in other words, it contains the same chemical as many birth control pills.  So, the same contraindications for use of oral contraceptives would apply to wild carrot.

The underlying assumption of the article is that natural remedies are safe because, hey, they’re natural.  Well, those who are looking to try this method on their own better be sure they can tell the difference between wild carrot and poison hemlock.  Even jaz says she’s “a little wary of making my own contraception, since it’s more serious than making a smoothie or a mojito, though I do want to experiment with my inner alchemist and my green thumb!”

She should be just as wary of herbal treatments prepared by so-called experts.  Since herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements,  they not regulated by the FDA as are drugs.  This means no one is checking to make sure the health claims are valid.  Also, there is no national system of licensure or certification for herbalists.  This means that anyone can hang out a shingle and call her/himself an herbalist.

[NB: if you take St. John’s Wort be aware that it can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives].

So, while I agree with jaz that “women deserve to have a wide range of options readily available to make the ideal decisions for their bodies and sexual health,” they also need accurate and reliable health information.  Rewire usually does this and gives guides on how to detect inaccurate information.  In their section, “Fact v. Fiction,” the editors write:

“One trademark of the far right is misinformation. They make ideology sound like fact, belief sound like scientific data. We bring you the most widely circulated fictions about reproductive health, and the facts and resources to dispute them. If you are confused about how to determine if a study is real, this primer provides you with a great framework to evaluate any research study you read.”

Too bad the editors of the site didn’t apply these same criteria to misinformation from the left.  Women deserve better.

Disclosure: My research is funded by the National Library of Medicine and the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors Research Grant.  I have no financial ties to pharmaceutical companies of any kind.

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