If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably seen the #3WomenToday meme. A few people have asked me how I came up with that number, so I would like to share an explanation here. The short answer is that it came from a father who lost his daughter to birth control related blood clots, but I’m guessing you would like a little deeper explanation of the math behind it.
First, let me say that one of the main problems with coming up with a number like this is that we have no real way of accounting for anything in healthcare. The United States has no national registry. So, we really don’t have an accurate count of how many women are even taking hormonal birth control. I’ve seen estimates from trusted sources ranging from 11 million to 18 million. That’s a pretty big discrepancy.
The second problem comes with trying to calculate the incidence of side effects related to these contraceptives. It’s a safe bet that any numbers we pull will be low because birth control side effects are severely underreported. For example, you would think if a seemingly healthy young woman suddenly dropped dead from blood clots, the attending medical professionals might think to question whether she was taking hormonal birth control. Anecdotally, I can say I know of several cases where that question was never even pursued, much less reported.
Establishing a Starting Point
Keeping in mind that these things are underreported, read this excerpt from the patient information pamphlet for Seasonale:
“For women aged 20 to 44, it is estimated that about 1 in 2,000 using oral contraceptives will be hospitalized each year because of abnormal clotting. Among nonusers in the same age group, about 1 in 20,000 would be hospitalized each year. For oral contraceptive users in general, it has been estimated that in women between the ages of 15 and 34 the risk of death due to a circulatory disorder is about 1 in 12,000 per year, whereas for nonusers the rate is about 1 in 50,000 per year.”
If we take 14.5 million as the median number from the 11 – 18 million users, that would mean about 918 more women on hormonal birth control die each year than if they were non-users. That comes out to just over 2.5 women per day. Since we are starting from a median number of estimated users and we know that incidents are underreported, I am perfectly comfortable rounding up to three women each day.
I realize this is a highly unscientific approach to coming up with the number. So, let’s talk about another approach.
Birth Control Deaths
A good friend of mine coauthored this piece for Public Discourse, which looked at birth control and blood clots. Admittedly, they took a more scientific approach to calculating the number of deaths attributable to hormonal contraceptives. They conducted a systemic review of scientific literature and concluded that 300-400 women die each year from this specific side effect.
Again, I’m not surprised that they came up with a different number because researchers in this country can’t even agree on how many women are taking birth control. Their number may be a better estimate, but then again, the number I’m sharing may be closer to the truth of how many women we are losing. I have no interest in arguing that – or anything else in their article, for that matter. It’s a great article, and I highly recommend you read it.
Collateral Damage of Birth Control
Despite having great respect for Gerard, I’m comfortable sticking with #3WomenToday. And honestly, I still think three is probably a low estimate. Either way, let’s not get caught up in the numbers. Whether Gerard is right and it’s just over one woman each day or we are right and it’s closer to three women, please don’t lose sight of the bigger concern.
Think of it in this context – what would your reaction be if the drug companies were upfront about this? For the sake of argument, I’ll stick with Gerard’s lower number. Let’s suppose the drug companies just came out with a new product that promises clearer skin and it helps prevent pregnancy. They tell you they are going to start promoting it to all of our daughters starting at the age of 12 or 13. The only drawback is it’s going to kill one young woman every day and another 20 or so will be hospitalized each day.
I’m guessing not too many volunteers would be eager to sign up for this. Of course, the drug companies will never be this transparent so we need to do everything we can to spread the word. We also need to be aware that blood clots aren’t the only drawback. Hormonal birth control can trigger numerous chronic diseases that stay with you the rest of your life. The impact is far-reaching and the #3WomenToday is just the beginning of the tragic story.