“Sweetening the Pill” : Why I Chose to Get Off Birth Control Pills


“Millions upon millions of women of all ages take the pill every day, and many of these women — women who consider themselves healthy and selective as to what they put into their bodies — are absolutely clueless when it comes to how it works, even though it impacts every organ and function of the body. It’s a drug. In fact, it’s a powerful drug, the effects of which we’re only just starting to realize, and most women don’t even think of it as a drug… Teens are taught that it’s the responsible thing to do; mothers take their daughters to get first prescriptions as a kind of rite of passage. Our desire to hold this pill aloft as some kind of triumph for feminism has made us blind to the fact that, in the end, the pills are created by companies for money.”

– Monica Bielanko

Before getting pregnant, I’d been on the pill for a decade. Although I never experienced too many of the side effects (acne, weight gain, mood swings, and anxiety, among others), I always felt that there was something unnatural about messing with my cycle and altering my body’s natural chemistry. I just didn’t think I had any other options that were just as convenient and effective as the pill.

It is undeniable that the invention of the pill in the 1960’s was extremely liberating for women. For the first time ever, they could control the timing of their pregnancies. They were able to focus on their goals and careers, and postpone babies for a while if they wanted to. Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, women as a whole are not as informed about the side effects of birth control as they should be… And I’m not just talking about bloat and a zit now and then.

Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein (known for The Business of Being Born) do it again with Sweetening the Pill, a documentary (based on Holly Grigg-Spall’s book) that takes a closer look at “the safety and long-term effects of hormonal birth control.” Lake and Epstein showcase the many unheard voices of families who have lost close ones due to Yaz, Nuva Ring, and other third generation birth control pills.

I have to admit I was shocked at some of the female responses I found online. One comment that stood out was that Ricki Lake’s work was “anti-woman” or “anti-feminism” because, I quote, “The technology of the 20th Century — hospital birth, epidurals, infant formula and especially the pill — freed women from being slaves to their biology.” Slaves to the way they were naturally created? Slaves to what essentially makes them women? I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t make sense to me. As Bielanko points out, isn’t taking a closer look at something controlled by men and money a positive thing for women? Doesn’t that make us, as women, more informed, therefore more powerful?

Some of the side effects of the new forms of birth control pills include liver disease, stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, and blood clots. We’re just now starting to hear about the many lawsuits… and “hush hush” settlements. Those who are “pro-pill” argue that there are more risks of blood clots during pregnancy than while taking the pill, but ultimately, it’s important to note that it’s not a decision between the pill or a pregnancy. If you choose not to ingest a blast of hormones each and every day, you are not forced to have unprotected sex. There are many other, less risky forms of birth control that won’t take control of your body, make you sick, and in the worst cases, even kill you.


As soon as Liam was born I looked into Paragard, the only IUD (intrauterine device) available in the U.S. that does not contain hormones. The copper wire coiled around the stem and two copper sleeves along the arms of the device produce an inflammatory reaction in the uterus that is toxic to sperm, which helps prevent fertilization. It doesn’t alter your cycle and doesn’t have any hormonal side effects, and the best part? Once inserted, you do not have to worry about it for 10 years (granted, I’ll probably want more kids before that, but it’s nice not to worry about missing a pill). A lot of women are misinformed about IUDs and think that they are ineffective or only open to women who have had children — they are actually more effective than birth control pills and are available to women with or without children.

When the ob/gyn that I went to recommended Mirena (a hormone-releasing IUD on the market) instead of Paragard (which does not mess with your cycle at all), I wondered why he tried to be so persuasive. If they are both equally as effective (more than 99%), doesn’t it make more sense to always try the hormone-free route first? I couldn’t help but wonder if there is an incentive for doctors to recommend certain products over others…

At the end of the day, regardless what you think of Lake’s promotion of home births and whether or not you choose to get off the pill after watching her film, I think it’s important to be informed and know you have options. I say this a lot but it’s true. I chose a natural birth because I wanted to experience childbirth and knew it would change me in the best way. I chose to go hormone-free because deep down, I also knew it was the right choice for me. I don’t want to take a pill every day that could potentially hurt me — I want to be in tune with my body and see how it functions on its own, without anything man-made messing with it.

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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