Yesterday, researchers released findings that showed what was reported as a link between long term use of birth control and glaucoma, an incurable, progressive condition that leads to blindness. If you trusted the way it was reported by several outlets, even so much as thinking about whore pills was likely to cause your eyeballs to pop right the hell out of your head. Blindness is a "SCARY SIDE EFFECT!" of contraception screamed headlines. One website predicted that it might cause women to RETHINK BIRTH CONTROL. Everyone needs to calm the fuck down.
The research, presented at the 117th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, examined data from more than 3,400 women over forty, 231 of whom tested positive for glaucoma. Of those 231 with glaucoma, those who had taken hormonal contraceptives for more than 3 years had increased their odds for the disease twofold. As women aged further, that risk increased.
Researchers were careful to point out that 1- this newly-discovered association isn't a cause for panic and 2- more research is needed. Here, from ABC News,
"We can't really say [birth control pills] cause glaucoma," said study researcher and author Elaine Wang, of Duke University. "But if you have been taking it for more than three years, and especially if you have other risk factors such as family history and older age, then you might want to talk to your doctor and go see an ophthalmologist to screen for glaucoma."
"This study should be an impetus for future research to prove the cause and effect of oral contraceptives and glaucoma," said Dr. Shan Lin, lead researcher and professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco. "At this point, women who have taken oral contraceptives for three or more years should be screened for glaucoma and followed closely by an ophthalmologist, especially if they have any other existing risk factors."
Women shouldn't stop using birth control pills based on this study, Lin says. A lot more work needs to be done to find out if this apparent connection is real or just a coincidence.
So, reasonable life-adjustment in light of these findings: Science should keep examining the link between estrogen levels and eyesight, and non-scientist users of birth control, if you've already got risk factors for glaucoma, just make sure you're keeping... an eye on things. No need to panic.
Unless you're consulting the International Business Times. In that case, it is very much time to panic. BIRTH CONTROL MAY LEAD TO BLINDNESS! screams the headline. Later in the piece, the IBT admits that, ok yeah there's actually no need to panic, as this study shows that BIRTH CONTROL MAY LEAD TO BLINDNESS in the same way that anything shown to be correlated with something "may" also cause something.
The Week disagrees with the researchers themselves, concluding that This Changes Everything and that women should "seriously consider" not using The Pill.
A new report suggests that the most common form of birth control for American women has a strong link to glaucoma. The research shows three years of using oral contraception may double a woman's risks for the condition, adding fuel to the ongoing debate over whether women should ditch the pill.
A "strong link," you say? Hm. That's not what the scientists who did the actual research suggested.
The Stir at the ever-reasonable Cafe Mom led with SCARY NEW SIDE EFFECT MAY MAKE WOMEN RETHINK THE BIRTH CONTROL PILL.
The linked piece does not in fact imply very strongly that birth control could make a person go blind; rather, it's the ABC News piece containing the measured "more research is needed" quotes from the scientists behind the findings, which found a correlation between long-term hormonal contraception use and increased instance of glaucoma in women over 40. No one should rethink birth control if they need it; they should just make sure they're going to get their eyes checked. Sheesh.
The claim that we're "always discovering more risks!" of birth control isn't true, either. As Think Progress's seriously great Tara Culp-Ressler writes in the aptly titled CTFD anthem No, Birth Control Won't Make You Go Blind,
In fact, the ailments most commonly blamed on the pill — headaches, depression, and weight gain — aren't actually linked to oral contraceptives at all. "Over the past half century, an elaborate mythology about these ill effects has evolved, fueled by rumor, gossip and poor-quality research," the researchers who conducted clinical trials into the subject wrote in a 2011 paper. And the most popular right-wing talking points against oral birth control, such as the fact that's designated as a carcinogen, are misleading.
While The Wire (not to be confused with that bomb-ass show or with The Atlantic Wire) also jumped on the Panic Express, they also wrote
This is (maybe) bad news for women who have been on the pill for longer than three years, and good news for the anti-birth control movement.
I guess it's maybe bad news if you really hate that eye puff test at the optometrist's office (everyone who isn't a maniac hates the eye puff test). But unfortunately TW is right about these findings' destiny as fodder for the anti-birth control movement.
Look: I understand that a hyperbolic headline/lede can sometimes be useful in getting people to click on a story. But when it comes to women's reproductive health, hyperbole about risks can give fuel the rhetoric of an ideology that seeks to rob women of bodily autonomy. Giving Personhood folks an inch, and they'll stretch it into a mile. While I'm sure researchers didn't intend this (they make it very clear that they didn't), I fear that this tidbit just another scary-sounding kernel of risk that conservatives with an anti-sex agenda will try to grow into a cornfield of fear, joining such Conservative Bullshit Greatest Hits as "Abortion Causes Breast Cancer (Yes It Does)," "The Morning After Pill Is Murder," "You're Too Young For An Abortion (Never Too Young For A Baby)," "Whore Pills Cause Cancer," "Only Sluts Use Contraception," and "It's So Easy To Give Your Baby Up For Adoption." Now, That's What I Call Regressive Anti-Woman Propaganda.