Giving Rewire a Reality Check on Alternative Contraception

hmprescott

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.

A Natural Alternative to the Pill?

Janna Zinzi

It’s unpopular not to celebrate the Pill because there's enough opposition to reproductive rights; why add fuel to the fire? Yet while many women happily use them, a significant share find that side effects largely outweigh the benefits.

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Pill, we’ve seen a bevy of articles singing the praises of this revolutionary breakthrough in women’s reproductive health and automony. While I agree the Pill has allowed many women to gain more freedom in their sexuality, I haven’t jumped on the laudatory bandwagon for many reasons. As fellow reproductive justice comrade, Bianca Laureano, brilliantly explained the bodies of women of Color, especially in Puerto Rico, were testing grounds for the pharmaceutical industry in the development of hormonal contraception. I also take serious issue with the extent of the side effects. For me it was uncontrollable emotions, incessant hair growth and weight gain but for some women, like the author of this Salon article, “Why I Hate The Pill,” it affects the libido. These may sound like surmountable problems but they certainly affect a woman’s quality of life. As a reproductive health and justice advocate, it’s unpopular position to speak out against the Pill and other contraceptives because there is enough opposition to reproductive rights so I don’t aim to add fuel to the fire. I know that many women use hormonal contraceptives to not only prevent unintended pregnancy but also to regulate their cycles, eliminate cramps, tame acne, etc; and they are perfectly happy. However for a significant population of women, the side effects largely outweigh the benefits.

So what is the alternative? 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.

I discovered what seems to be a gift from heaven when I attended a lecture about natural contraceptives at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Annual Conference at Hampshire College a couple of years ago. It’s an herb called wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne’s Lace) with contraceptive properties that can be made into teas and tinctures, or has seeds that are chewed. This has been used for several decades by women in China and India, and Robin Rose Bennett has been surrounded by controversy and naysayers in her efforts to bring this to American women. Essentially wild carrot inhibits the conversion of pregnenolone to progesterone, the hormone necessary to make the uterus an ideal place for implantation. So if there is no progesterone, there is no implantation. So a woman is supposed to take ½ tablespoon of the tincture eight to 12 hours after intercourse, another dose 12 hours later, and then the final dose 12 hours after that. During the lecture, the facilitator from Wise Women Ways, even showed us how we can make the tincture ourselves. I’m 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!

Since the tincture seemed pretty simple, and I’m familiar with tinctures for colds and other ailments, I tried it. The side effects I had were minimal, most notably increased breast tenderness before my period. But the lecturer explained that it’s a common side effect due to the decrease in progesterone, and for me it was minimal compared to the effects I experienced on the Pill. Also a couple of times, my period was off by a couple of days. That can be a little scary considering you’re depending on an “untested” contraceptive but thus far I haven’t had a pregnancy.

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My caveat is that I’m not in a committed long-term relationship so I haven’t consistently used this method over long periods of time. Yet it provides a contraceptive option for women who are not in long-term relationships but are having sex and want to avoid a pregnancy. In the meantime, there are ongoing trials testing wild carrot amongst couples, particularly cohabitating ones, to ensure the effectiveness in a wider range of experiences.

I strongly reiterate that birth control is not one size fits all and this has worked for MY lifestyle. Anyone who uses traditional hormonal contraception is experimenting with their body, and using natural remedies are no different. I don’t look down at women who have found comfort and security in the Pill and I support anything that safely gives women reproductive freedom and automony. However, it makes some women’s lives a living hell. Women deserve to have a wide range of options readily available to make the ideal decisions for their bodies and sexual health. 

Can a Reality Show Find the Elusive “Common Ground” on Abortion?

Anat Shenker-Osorio

The producers of the webshow Bump+ hide a lot about themselves which creates a highly suspect atmosphere for the foundation of a civil and meaningful conversation about abortion.

Eventually, we will all be on a reality show. There will be a military-style draft instituted, as there are simply too many shows that need bodies. Currently, “real” people starve themselves, get cut open, parent octuplets, seek a spouse, turn car parts into couture and show us a slice of life from prison. So ubiquitous has it become you might wonder, is any topic off limits? The answer is yes. Abortion has necessitated a new genre — the based-on-a-reality-show show.

This show is Bump+ — “an attempt to see if one story can succeed where nearly four decades of rhetoric and political posturing have failed.” Actors playing characters on a reality show, complete with fake producer, visible camera crew and confessional interviews, decide whether to carry their pregnancies to term.

Bump+ is the first offering from Yellow Line Studio, which “exists to develop, produce, and distribute quality entertainment that engages and influences the culture in positive ways.” And if I had any idea what that meant, I might agree it was good.

But obfuscation turns out to be integral to the show and the studio that spawned it. The obvious example of this is the conflation between creator and viewer. The audience is encouraged to “participate” — giving commentary on the episodes, offering advice to the characters and telling their stories to help shape the outcome.

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In response to Fox News labeling Bump+ an “abortion game show,” producer Lauri Deason was quick to refute the idea that viewers are voting. The line between yea or nay and influencing what happens, however, is pretty blurry. Each episode ends with the words “their choices are up to you.” So, to be fair, it’s not a game show; it’s an abortion-themed choose your own adventure.

When I asked Executive Producer Chris Riley why viewers’ comments would influence the narratives, he responded: “because that’s the nature of our web culture…. People are more apt to tell their story if they feel it has a chance to influence. I understand that can raise concern that this choice is being taken out of the hands of these women, our characters. Each of these women will make their own decisions — [the viewers’ comments represent] a wider circle of friends who offer advice.”

This explanation seems to contrast one of Deason’s objectives:

I hope we’re functioning in some small way as a cultural mirror reflecting the dark side of the reality show phenomenon…I’m relieved and hopeful for our culture when I read in the press that people are outraged and offended by the concept of a show like the fictional one we’ve created. Part of what drew me to this project was my own sense of horror at the idea that anyone (the women or the TV crew) would even think to exploit such a personal and private decision; and yet, three of the first ten comments we got on the trailer were inquiries about casting for the show. (We immediately removed those comments.)…A few people have raised some good points about the consequences of allowing what should be an intimate decision to be shared by millions of strangers – and how the current atmosphere that seems to characterize some of the actual abortion debate looks suspiciously like a real world parallel to that at times. If nothing else, the outrage over Bump+ proves that there are people from both perspectives who actually agree on one point that suggests they share a fundamental respect for women.

If you are seeking to criticize the genre, it hardly seems effective to profit off of one of its key elements — audience participation. As Audre Lorde wisely counseled “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

But most troubling is the lack of clarity in the motivation behind the show itself. Despite multiple attempts to get at what constitutes success in this endeavor, I remain unsure of what Deason means when she says she wants to “influence the culture in positive ways.” Deason’s written response on this is hard to dislike: “I’ll feel successful in terms of the company’s mission if viewers walk away with new or renewed confidence that they don’t have to compromise or abandon their own convictions to listen and respond with compassion to someone else.”

And Riley wrote similarly encouraging things, saying “I think in particular that we’ve already seen evidence in the conversations unfolding on the Bump+ website that the audience…is gaining compassion. They’re listening to people with whom they disagree. They’re trying to understand. And anytime people can have meaningful conversations around a topic that has been as polarizing and even taboo as abortion, a subject we’ve proven ourselves virtually incapable of talking about, I think that’s a plus for our culture.”

If this “experiment” is one of finding common ground — an endeavor Riley commended as represented on this very website — it seems the question of its success should revolve around whether this is possible and how it ought to be attempted. Riley maintains that “if we can tell the stories honestly and fairly, [if] you can conclude that this was paid for by the Pope or Planned Parenthood” than they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

But is intentional ambiguity about your own beliefs the necessary starting point for civil debate?

Common ground is not a clearly demarcated space. Do we reach this mythical country by wearing our views on our sleeves and fighting it out till we find — Venn-diagram style — the intersections? Or do we, instead, hold back on our existing beliefs and biases?

The latter approach is the one Yellow Line is taking. Riley refuses to disclose his views on abortion. Other key people do the same. However, he maintains — as have others on the show’s website — that the folks involved come from a variety of backgrounds. They would have us understand this to mean they hold a variety of viewpoints.

But “variety” itself seems ill defined. As Mary Elizabeth Williams reported, all of Bump’s top folks teach at John Paul the Great Catholic University. However, you wouldn’t know this from their bios, which read “[Iocco] serves as a university administrator and faculty member” and “[Riley] teaches screenwriting and other media classes at the university level.” Deason doesn’t mention a university connection at all but is an adjunct professor at JP Catholic.

Why all the secrecy about their day jobs? Possibly because this university boasts the motto “Impacting Culture for Christ” and declares “the Catholic influence on the media is near rock bottom, but is enjoying a small but passionate resurgence in Hollywood. New media, which is evolving and maturing daily, is poised to radically change the landscape of the media industry.”

While it’s possible to interpret this as the ‘loving-kindness, accept-people-as-they-are’ version of Catholicism — it’s difficult to credit the school with such a view. In fact, they have proudly taken up Pope John Paul’s directives for Catholic universities, including “offering a convincing witness, within a pluralistic society, to the Church’s teaching, particularly on respect for human life, marriage and family, and the right ordering of public life. As most of us know, “respect for human life” in a dogmatic Catholic view means prohibiting abortion.

While Riley side-stepped potential conflict between the school’s directives and Bump’s+ objectives, JP Catholic states quite clearly: “All teaching faculty commit to harmony with Catholic Church teachings (the pope and bishops) in speech and action. Faculty, staff, students or volunteers who knowingly in public speech or actions take positions against the Catholic Church compromise their relationship with JP Catholic.” (Emphasis theirs) And “public speech” clearly extends beyond the classroom.

This connection to JP Catholic is the norm among Bump’s+ cast and crew. Sixteen out of the 27 people in the show’s credits work for, attend, or have graduated from JP Catholic. All of the show’s writers have studied there including Matthew Salisbury who came up with the idea for the show in a course at — you guessed it — JP Catholic. Two cast members not affiliated with the school clearly identify with the anti-choice movement.

While the top level folks, as their aforementioned bios attest, are circumspect in revealing their personal views — the younger members of this endeavor could learn a bit about Facebook privacy settings. For example, Emily Von Sydow, the associate producer who writes the show’s blog is a Facebook fan of The Not So Silent Majority among other anti-choice organizations. Regarding the Salon.com charges of secrecy, she asks: “Should artists be required to label their art with their religious and political affiliations? Does a writer, director, or producer (or even a doctor, pilot, or journalist) have a responsibility to explain exactly what they believe to everyone?”

One viewer responds: “if the producers had done a web series (sic) on football or dog-sledding or making a cheesecake, I would argue that their political and religious affiliations are completely irrelevant. However, abortion is *the* polarizing religious, moral, and political issue of our age. When considering a web series (sic) dealing with abortion, knowledge of the point-of-view of the producers is not only of interest to the viewer, I would argue that it is *critical*, particularly if you hope to engage your viewer in honest dialogue.” Perhaps there is something to be said for encouraging viewer responses.

Riley offered, unasked, that he isn’t Catholic. Not surprising, given he’s a graduate of Oral Roberts University where “a Christian worldview is central to everything we do.” Similarly, Lauri Deason graduated from an evangelical center of higher education — William Tyndale College. It’s safe to assume she isn’t Catholic either.

I spoke with the only member of this production who is neither silent about nor right wing in her personal politics. Lauren Holiday, who plays a nurse at the clinic where most of the story takes place, is a lesbian activist who is married to her partner despite California’s schizophrenic attitude toward equality.

Holiday was quite clear that she felt absolutely no bias among Bump’s+ creators, nor hostility from her fellow cast members. In fact, because auditions were held at JP Catholic (surely a dubious practice for a show that professes to have no institutional relationship to the university) she insisted she was on alert for any bias — “I just wouldn’t have been involved in it if I thought they were trying to preach a certain message.”

In contrast to her colleagues, she offered up her views on abortion, stating “I’m pro-choice to me it’s really an issue of privacy…So I’m surprised that people feel like they can weigh in on somebody’s personal decisions, it’s almost a throw back to the old days when women were property.”

What to make, then, of this professed attempt at dialogue? Is it in earnest or the best-ever propaganda?

Turning to the show itself, the answer is still not obvious. There are hints of anti-choice tactics like forcing the women to not only have but stare at the screen during their ultrasounds — as part of their contractual obligation to the reality show. And while the doctor is willing to waive this requirement, in defiance of the producers if necessary, there’s also this exchange between him and Katie, one of the pregnant women:

Katie: Does it hurt?

Doctor: It can be complicated, but I’m not sure I can honestly answer that question.

Katie: Haven’t you…performed…

Katie: Why not?

Doctor: I’m a coward.

Why was this physician selected if he has no real knowledge of this procedure? And then there’s his answer — is it a question of courage to provide a medical service your patient requests? I guess it can be argued that in today’s political climate, bravery is essential.

Complicating any assessment of whether this show comes with an agenda and, if so, what that agenda entails is the intense criticism it has received from the anti-choice crowd. Besides the Fox News beating, conservative commentator Kathleen Parker charges “there are so many unappealing facets wrapped into this one package, it’s difficult to identify the core offense.” On her radio show Dr. Laura tore into Yellow Line CEO and Bump+ Executive Producer Iocco.

The vast majority of the comments on this show — I would estimate 75 percent but haven’t actually counted — are anti-choice. The standard story offered is of abortion regretted; the most frequent refrains are about the unborn. But this is precisely because the show has received much more — almost entirely negative — attention in the “Right to Life” camp. The over-riding sentiment from these folks is: how dare they make a show with decision-making in the foreground — the unborn baby always deserves top-billing. They’re contending, in a sense, that the show cannot foster dialogue and bring down the temperature because its very premise goes against their side’s worldview.

And so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with people whose political objectives I abhor. I too believe the basic premise of the show is at odds with its purported intentions. For me this means, for an issue that — according to the legal logic in Roe v. Wade — is about privacy, the very notion of encouraging input from strangers is antithetical to legalized abortion. On the other side of this debate, I would guess this irreconcilable conflict would sound thus: for an issue involving life, which begins at conception, the circumstances surrounding termination of pregnancy may be meaningful but are never worthy of consideration above life.

The length the producers have gone to hide their affiliations indicates it might not be possible to present stories about abortion without an agenda. They obviously feel it’s necessary to avoid mention of the school where the idea was born and all of the executive and writing staff work or study. This indicates one of two things (1) they are hiding a secret agenda or (2) they fear people will suspect they are hiding a secret agenda.

Either way, highly suspect as the foundation for a civil and meaningful conversation. It is, at the outset, an attempt rooted in obscuring personal truths, and perhaps even outright fabrication.

Treading the middle ground is not just the intent of Bump+ but also the metaphor behind Yellow Line Studio’s name. In this, Riley remarked rather off-handedly that “driving down the middle” you are very likely to get hit by traffic from both sides. Especially, I would add, if you try and conceal yourself from view.

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