Over the course of the past day or so, you may have seen some alarming news: Long-term use of birth control pills, according to a study released at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, may be linked to glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness in the US. If you happen to be one of the more than 80 percent of women who has used oral contraceptives during her life, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little nervous. Long-term contraception is pretty much unavoidable for sexually active women who would rather not get pregnant.
The researchers, undoubtedly aware that a link between birth control and blindness would make millions of women just a tad uneasy, were careful to emphasize that their findings are not conclusive. One of the lead authors told NPR that women shouldn't stop using birth control pills based on this study, adding that a lot more work needs to be done to find out if this apparent connection is real or just a coincidence.
But most media reports blitzed past the researchers’ hedging. After all, everyone loves a good birth control scare story. “Taking birth control pill for years may double glaucoma risk,” warned CBS News. “Birth Control Causes Glaucoma? New Study Finds Contraceptives May Lead to Blindness,” blared the International Business Times. A blogger for “The Week” even used the study to suggest that women should think about giving up the pill entirely.
This framing isn’t just inaccurate—it’s dangerous. “Think of the damage done to women’s health by undermining their trust in oral contraceptives,” says David Grimes, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Millions of women suffer complications from pregnancy and childbirth every year. Very few suffer complications from birth control pills. There’s a story, but no one seems to run that.”
Reporters probably should have ignored the study to begin with. It’s not a published paper, which means that until the findings go through a process of peer review, they are at best preliminary. The sample size is also small—the researchers used data from 3,406 female participants aged 40 years or older from across the United States who completed a CDC vision and reproductive health questionnaire and underwent eye exams. Women who had used oral contraceptives for more than three years were twice as likely to report that they also had a glaucoma diagnosis.
A glance at other research makes this figure seem less dire. In a peer-reviewed study that followed 75,000 women over the age of 40 for over 25 years, researchers were even less willing to draw between glaucoma and long-term oral contraceptive use. Meanwhile, yet another study released last year—also in an academic journal—found that people who drink up to three cups of coffee a day were 66 percent more likely to develop glaucoma. Viagra has also been associated with blindness.
If fear of glaucoma doesn’t stop women from reaching for their Starbucks cup, it shouldn’t scare them off the pill. There are plenty of good reasons why women might opt for a contraceptive, but this shouldn’t be one of them. Not every study that purportedly shows an adverse side effect for birth control needs to be taken seriously. In fact, sensational reporting on such findings can have an actively negative impact on women’s ability to choose the best contraceptive method. For years, women’s magazines reported that birth control pills caused weight gain. Even after numerous studies debunked this claim, concern about putting on a few pounds is one of the main reasons why women stop using the pill, or refuse to take it in the first place. In 1995, after the British Committee on the Safety of Medicines erroneously suggested that certain types of birth control pills dramatically increased women’s risk of blood clots, rates of unintended pregnancy soared.
By any measure, pregnancy is more dangerous than oral contraceptives. Maternal and infant mortality rates are higher in the U.S. than in many developed countries, and pregnancy complications are nearly unavoidable. Among the 4.2 million deliveries in 2008, 94 percent listed some kind of complication. But the risks associated with unintended pregnancy are drowned out by the commotion about the latest birth control side effects.
Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says the steady drumbeat of negative information about contraception is particularly harmful for youth. “Young people have an enormous amount of misinformation and magical thinking about birth control,” he says. “Almost nowhere is the counterfactual—how has this completely changed and revolutionized our society? We need to continue to serve up the obvious, which are birth control’s overwhelming positive effects.”