Kristina Flathers, Staff Writer


Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series that will examine the medical effects of contraceptives and natural family-planning methods.

In May 2012, Notre Dame legally challenged the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) insurance mandate. After a US federal court denied a temporary injunction over the New Year, however, Notre Dame announced that a third-party administrator would contact employees about access to “free” contraception.

Depending on the outcome of these legal proceedings, access to the mandated provisions could be reversed in the future. For the present, university employees, through Notre Dame’s third party insurance administrator Meritain, have access to contraceptives.

While popular culture portrays hormonal contraceptives positively and lightly, it rarely airs their downsides, according to Fort-Wayne/South Bend Diocesan Natural Family Planning (NFP) coordinator Lisa Everett.

Everett, who often speaks to at-risk women living at Hannah’s House, a Christian maternity home in Mishawaka, as well as undergraduate students at Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame, seeks to educate her listeners about the medical effects of contraceptives.

By ingesting hormonal contraceptives, Everett said, “you risk your physical health, future fertility and the life of any children you conceive, and for those who are sexually active before marriage, you risk picking the wrong husband.”

What scientific evidence supports this claim? The most effective hormonal contraceptives (such as the “Pill,” the “Shot,” and the “Patch,”) can pose serious health risks. Since the Pill was the first of those popular options to be put on the market, and remains the most popular contraceptive choice, it has been the subject of more scientific research than alternative options. According to Everett, research conducted on the Pill’s medical effects is relevant to other hormonal contraceptive methods as well, as they share similar chemical compositions with the Pill. (The primary difference between them is the method of delivery or ingestion.)

Numerous studies have illuminated the harmful physical health effects of the Pill. In 2005, the World Health Organization classified the combination Pill as a Group 1 carcinogen, a category shared by tobacco, arsenic and mustard gas (WHO, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Press Release No. 167, July 29, 2005). Twenty-one scientists from 8 countries collaborated on and produced the study.

In October 2006, the prestigious medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings published a meta-analysis of 34 studies conducted since 1980 to assess whether prior oral contraceptive (OC) use is associated with premenopausal breast cancer. The analysis concluded that women using OCs have a higher risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer, especially if those women used OCs before their first full-term pregnancy. The association between OC use and breast cancer risk was greatest for women who used OCs for four or more years before their first full-term pregnancy.

More recently, a study published in the April 1, 2009 issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention found that a year or more of oral contraceptive use could increase risk of triple-negative breast cancer for women 40 and under by a factor of 4.2. That risk increases the longer the duration of use and the earlier the age of first use. The study was conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Hormonal contraceptives also affect a woman’s future fertility. Erik Odeblad, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Umea in Sweden, devoted his professional career to studying the changes that a woman’s cervix undergoes during her fertility cycle and throughout her reproductive life. His research has demonstrated that the Pill doubles the cervix’s rate of aging and can make it more difficult to eventually conceive a child. In other words, a sexually-active 20-year-old woman takes the Pill for 10 years. When she stops taking the Pill at age 30 to start a family, her cervix has aged to that of a 40-year-old woman, making it more difficult for her to conceive (World Organisation of Ovulation Method Billings, International Bulletin, Volume 25, No. 2.)

Everett pointed out that in addition to preventing pregnancy, hormonal contraceptives can also cause early abortions. These synthetic hormones work not only by suppressing ovulation and therefore preventing conception, but also by thinning the lining of the uterus in order to interfere with an embryo’s ability to implant in case of conception.

The Food and Drug Administration-approved patient insert found in every package of OCs states, “Combination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus”—which increases the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus—“and the endometrium”—which reduces the likelihood of implantation.

Studies have shown that ovulation occurs in 2-10% of women taking the Pill—a phenomenon known as “breakthrough ovulation”—and some studies suggest even higher incidences. It occurs more frequently with the progestin-only “minipill,” making its abortifacient potential even greater (Previous three paragraphs from Drug Information Online, “Combined Oral Contraceptives.”)

Everett said that most women have never heard that there is also evidence that hormonal contraceptives skew the biochemistry of attraction between men and women. An article entitled “Scents and Sensibility,” published in the January/February 2008 issue of Psychology Today Magazine, reported on research in biochemistry regarding scent and sexual attraction, based partly on a t-shirt experiment first performed in Europe and then replicated in the US.

Researchers in that study found that “women generally prefer the smell of men whose major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene complements are different from theirs, setting the stage for the best biological match. But the t-shirt study revealed one notable exception to this rule: women on the birth-control pill…they preferred the scent of men whose MHC profiles were similar to theirs—the opposite of their pill-free counterparts.”

This skewing lowers the possibility of conceiving a healthy child, and also potentially damages the intimate relationship itself. According to the Psychology Today study, “The tendency to favor mates with similar MHC genes could potentially hamper the durability of pill users’ relationships in the long term.”

Rachel Herz, an expert on the psychology of smell and author of The Scent of Desire, explains why: “It’s like picking your cousins as marriage partners. It constitutes a biological error.”

Charles Wysocki, a psychobiologist at Florida State University, says that as a result, when the woman stops taking birth control, she may find herself less attracted to her mate. “On a subconscious level,” he says, “her brain is realizing a mistake was made—she married the wrong guy.”

Herz adds something else which seems to confirm this point: “One of the most common things women tell marriage counselors is, ‘I can’t stand his smell’” (“Scents and Sensibility,” Elizabeth Svoboda, Psychology Today, Jan/Feb 2008).

Ample scientific evidence supports Everett’s warnings that hormonal contraceptives carry with them a multitude of negative long-term side effects.

Kristina is a junior from Monterey, CA. Having just returned from studying abroad in London, she cannot stop acting like a tourist, even at her own school, jumping in snow banks and taking countless pictures of the golden dome. Contact her at