Birth control pills come with the risk of a lot of side effects, like weight gain, acne, headaches, and even an increased risk of blood clots. But, contrary to the many headlines which appeared on major news networks this week, blindness is NOT a side effect of birth control.
The reason behind the outrageous claim is a new study by the University of California, San Francisco. The study assessed information from 3,406 women aged 40 years and up. The women had all taken part in the 2005 to 2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey which required them to fill out a survey and have an eye exam.
Out of all the women, 231 of them had glaucoma. Of these women, 2.3% had never used birth control, 1.3% had used birth control for less than 3 years, and 1.4% had used birth control for 3+ years. By comparison, out of the 3,175 women who did not have glaucoma, 29..6% had never used birth control, 28.8% had used birth control for less than 3 years, and 36.5% had used birth control for 3+ years.
Based on this information and adjusting for other factors, the researchers concluded that women who used birth control have a 2.05 times higher risk of glaucoma.
The mainstream media took this information and ran with it. Some of the headlines read:
Prolonged Use of Birth Control Pill Linked to Glaucoma – TIME blog
BREAKING: The Pill Linked to Glaucoma Risk – Prevention
Birth Control Could Make You Go Blind – The Atlantic Wire
If these fear-invoking headlines weren’t bad enough, most of the news outlets didn’t even bother to get into details about the study – and it is those details which would have assuaged women’s fears. Few of the news articles, for example, bothered to mention that the “risk” found by the researchers is only an association. They overwhelmingly also fail to mention the other risk factors found in the study, such as that African Americans have a 3.36 times increased risk of glaucoma. Not one news outlet wrote a headline along the lines of “African American Women 3 Times More Likely to Go Blind!” Why would they write that when they can focus on the controversial topic of birth control instead?
As The Wired points out, this study (which should be considered preliminary because it has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal) is “Good news for the anti-birth control movement…There’s a lot of fake science swirling around about the risks associated with oral contraceptives, the most common assertion being that birth control causes breast cancer. This has not been proven.”
The media needs to be condemned for hyping up the supposed threats of birth control pills while simultaneously ignoring all of the potential benefits of the pill. For example, while there may be some evidence linking birth control pills to breast cancer, there is also evidence showing that it decreases risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. And then there is the fact that access to birth control makes it possible to avoid unintended pregnancy and to plan for a family – which very well may be why increasingly more women have enrolled in college and gone on to high-position careers since the pill became available.
Yes, the pill does have some side effects and risks which women need to be aware of. But we need to stop blowing up fake and misleading science just to scare women away from a safe, effective form of family planning.