An anti-contraception commenter on Feministing brought up a link between the pill and breast cancer as a reason to restrict dispensing it. He linked to the website No Room for Contraception, which claims that “Over the past two decades, multiple analyses and studies have provided convincing evidence that using oral contraceptives increases the risk of breast cancer.”
It’s always possible to find studies that support your view if you look hard enough – there are studies that purport to prove that black people have an innately lower IQ than white people and that global warming is a myth. So I trekked to Wikipedia and pulled the two sources it gives on a link between oral contraceptives and breast cancer, hoping to get a more objective perspective.
Source number one, the student health center of the University of New Mexico, says,
[Link] The most serious side effect associated with the birth-control pill is a greater chance of blood clots, stroke and heart attack. These problems occur in only a small number of women who take the pill. Women who have the most risk of developing these problems are women who smoke, are over thirty-five and women with other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or vascular disease or blood cholesterol and triglyceride abnormalities.
If these side effects are serious enough to constitute a significant public health risk, they’re grounds for restricting dispensing contraceptives to high-risk women. But even so, the risk factors – age, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure – are already associated with increased incidence of blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks. In a country where it’s legal to buy cholesterol- and trans fat-ridden junk food, there’s no real grounds to call what’s going on a significant public health risk. Note that this source says nothing about breast cancer.
Source number two, the Family Planning Association, says
- A very small number of women may develop a blood clot which can block a vein (venous thrombosis) or an artery (arterial thrombosis or heart attack or stroke). If you have ever had a thrombosis, you should not use the pill. Some types of pill appear to be associated with a slightly higher risk of venous thrombosis.
- The risk of venous thrombosis is greatest during the first year that you take the pill and if any of the following apply to you: you are very overweight, are immobile for a long period of time or use a wheelchair, have severe varicose veins or a member of your immediate family had a venous thrombosis before they were 45.
- The risk of arterial thrombosis is greatest if any of the following apply to you: you smoke, are diabetic, have high blood pressure, are very overweight, have migraine with aura, or a member of your immediate family had a heart attack or stroke before they were 45.
- Research into the risk of breast cancer and hormonal contraception is complex and contradictory. Current research suggests that users of all hormonal contraception appear to have a small increase in risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to non-users of hormonal contraception. Further research is ongoing.
- Research suggests that there is a small increase in risk of developing cervical cancer if the pill is used continuously for more than five years.
- Some research suggests a link between using the combined pill and developing a very rare liver cancer.
In other words, there’s an insignificantly low chance you’ll develop a life-threatening condition, unless you’re a member of a special risk group, in which case the chance is merely tiny.
Drugs are not completely safe. They invariably have side effects, which can become very serious for a small number of people. Ideally, a drug whose side effects can be dangerous to a casual user should be prescription-only, while a drug with lesser side effects, which don’t outweigh the benefits, should be available over the counter. Although the FDA is far from ideal, it tends to be biased in the other direction, that is against availability of contraception.