Meredith Weston is a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America where she received her master’s degree in biotechnology.
Hormonal science is complex. The role of hormones in the body is vital, and one of the most important jobs they have is to help maintain your body’s homeostasis (its ability to stay “constant” or “stable”). This means regulating your internal temperature, energy balance, blood composition, and even your sleep cycle. Birth control utilizes hormonal science by “tricking” your body and disrupting its normal function in order to prevent ovulation. Many of today’s birth control pills contain synthetic forms of two female hormones, estrogen and progestin. These synthetic hormones keep a woman’s natural hormone levels stable throughout their cycle, preventing estrogen from peaking mid-cycle and the release of an ovum, or mature egg. Without the estrogen peak, the pituitary gland does not secrete gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) or luteinizing hormone (LH), both of which are responsible for prompting the uterus to build up its endometrium, a thick uterine lining beneficial for mature egg implantation, and stimulating the ovaries. Therefore, if the hormones are not secreted, the follicles are not stimulated, no egg is released, nothing can be fertilized by sperm, and the woman cannot get pregnant.
Birth control dates back as far as ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Rome. In these civilizations, women used a combination of cotton, dates, honey, and acacia as a suppository. Luckily for us, fast-forward a few thousand years and women’s health care has become its own scientific and comprehensive specialty. However, it wasn’t an easy path. In 1873, congress passed a law that deemed birth control information obscene and outlawed its dissemination. The federal obscenity ban on birth control was lifted in 1938 and in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration announced the approval of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive for women. In 2010, a study that had been conducted over 40 years found that women on oral contraceptives tend to live longer and have a lower inclination for cancer and heart disease. Today, more than 100 million women around the world use the pill.
Women’s health care has come a long way—enduring and evolving with changing times. Currently, there are numerous birth control methods available to women all with their own set of advantages and conveniences. These include oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices (IUDs), barrier devices, and emergency contraceptives, more commonly known as Plan B. Plan B entered the market in 1999 following the approval of a second generation synthetic hormone, Levonorgestrel. Its main purpose is to provide an effective back-up method for preventing unplanned pregnancy after unprotected sex. It has been shown that half of all pregnancies in the United States are not planned. Furthermore, rates of unintended pregnancy are highest among teenagers and these pregnancies carry a greater risk of causing the mother and child major health problems. However, recent studies have shown that the effectiveness of some types of emergency contraceptive pills, like Plan B, may be too optimistic. They prevent up to two-thirds of unplanned pregnancies—not all of them. Some experts point to IUDs as the most effective form of emergency contraception as when inserted following unprotected intercourse, an IUD can prevent 95 percent of pregnancies.
In recent months, birth control has become a hot topic: sparking heated debates, driving protests, and leading many to question what role, if any, our government should play in women’s health care. With such a spotlight on this issue, formal action from both the U.S. government and its citizens seems inevitable. In preparation, everyone should have access to the scientific knowledge that is essential in making the complicated and influential choices we all face.
What questions do you still have about birth control and the government’s role in women’s health care?