Tiny pill, big issues

Birth control at the center of latest national firestorm

February 10, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

Imagine something that made it onto so many dinner tables it was just called "the food," or a fashion brand worn so often it was referred to merely as "the clothes."

The idea underscores the far-reaching impact of "the pill," the hormonal birth control drug that's been around for more than 50 years in something very close to its current form. But events during the last two weeks have again put birth control in the national spotlight, embroiling those on all points of the political spectrum in a debate about women's rights, religious freedom and the role of government in health care.

Catholic bishops this week vowed to fight new health care rules going into effect this year that would require hospital and university employers to offer health insurance that would cover birth control 100 percent – even if those hospitals and universities are religiously affiliated. The resulting controversy has drawn comments from political candidates, lawmakers and media pundits about whether that rule violates employers' religious freedom.

This comes just days after Susan G. Komen's decision to defund breast exams at Planned Parenthood clinics caused a national debate. Though that flap centered mostly on the abortion debate, Planned Parenthood is a major provider of contraceptive services in the U.S.

Add to that attention from a huge birth control pill recall last week and you have a country seemingly obsessed with the topic.

With contraception under the microscope this month, RedEye unearthed some of the many digits, quotes and factoids surrounding its complex past and future.

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1965: In this year, the Supreme Court tackled the issue of birth control when the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut case was decided by a 7-2 vote. In the ruling, the court overturned a Connecticut law banning all forms of birth control, saying there was a right to privacy.

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LABEL: 30 years

The average American woman spends about three decades trying to prevent unintended pregnancy, according to reproductive health researcher the Guttmacher Institute.

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LABEL: Hot seat

Birth control pills Yaz, Yasmin and their generic versions have been on the hot seat lately, with some research showing an increased risk of blood clots and other serious problems. The Project on Government Oversight reported last month that four FDA panelists who voted to keep those drugs on the market had financial ties to manufacturers of the drug or its generic equivalent. POGO reported that in 2010, 2.5 million women got Yaz, Yazmin or a generic product containing the active ingredient in the drug.

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1 million

Last week, drug maker Pfizer recalled 1 million packages of birth control pills including Lo/Ovral-28, Norgestrel and Ethinyl Estradiol. Pfizer officials said they were recalling the drugs because some of the packages had too many placebo pills and might not prevent pregnancy.

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$25: That's the price of the morning-after pills being sold in a Pennsylvania college's vending machines, according to CBS. Shippensburg University says the vending machine is in an area only students can access and that there are no students younger than 17 at the school (who legally would need a prescription to get the medication).

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QUOTES: [source: The New York Times]

"This is not a women's rights issue... This is a religious liberty issue." -- Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire)

"We stand here ready to oppose any attack that is being launched against women's rights and women's health." -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York).

"We want to work with all these (religious) organizations to implement this policy in a way that is as sensitive to their concerns as possible." -- White House press secretary Jay Carney.

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HED: Poll position

A poll released Feb. 7 by the Public Religion Research Institute showed attitudes on medical coverage of birth control varies across gender, religious and age lines. Here is a small sampling.

55 percent

Percentage of people surveyed who said employers should be required to provide employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.

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65 percent

Percentage of those 18-29 who said employers' health plans should have to include free birth control, but only 40 percent of those 65 or older agreed with them.

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62 percent

Percentage of women who said employers should have to offer health care plans that cover birth control.

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47 percent

Percentage of men who said employers should have to offer health care plans that cover birth control.

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HED: Other techniques and products

When we're talking birth control, we often think "the pill." But there are other ways to prevent or reduce the risk of pregnancy. Here are just some of the many kinds of contraception out there:

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Birth control pills, shots, or vaginal inserts

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Condoms

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Diaphrams or cervical caps

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Intrauterine devices

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Sterilization

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Spermicides

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Natural family planning or the "rhythm method"

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Plan B or the "morning-after" pill

ggarvey@Tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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