Reading Recommendation — Sweetening of the Pill

Holly Grigg-Spall in many ways is completely different from me. She’s not religious, she’s a feminist, pro choice, and someone who spent a good part of her life on hormonal contraceptives. She has no anti-contraceptive agenda, no religious bias to promote a religious ideal. And this, in my opinion, makes her book, Sweetening the Pill – How we got hooked on hormonal birth control, one I would highly recommend for any woman to read, Catholic or not.

I come from a completely different background than Ms. Grigg-Spall. I am a devout cradle Catholic. I saved sex for marriage, prayed outside abortion clinics in college, and experienced a peer pressure to stay off the pill.  I have never used artificial contraceptives of any kind.

I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the pill mostly from Catholic sources and a little from secular sources.  Even with such an understanding, I really didn’t expect Ms. Grigg-Spall’s book to offer me much in the way of information I had not already been exposed to. How wrong I was!

Now, I will say that The Sweetening the Pill is not an academic book. Ms. Grigg-Spall is not a doctor. Rather, this is a work that collaborates information from a multitude of sources.  Consider it a smorgasburg of “food for thought.”  While the book (at least in Kindle format) has no footnoted citations, she does references her sources in the same manner a newspaper would.  Additionally, at the end of the book , there is a list of additional reading materials.  As such, if anything really hits you and puts you on the fence on an issue, you can still easily find your way to more information to make your own judgement.

The book is organized a bit as a testimonial.  She tells her experience with various forms of hormonal birth control and than inserts bits and pieces of information she learned on along the way as it becomes relevant to her story.

I have read some reviews that criticize her for doing this, but as a woman who has never touched artificial contraception, I appreciated the opportunity to be let into her world experience and prospective.

There are some sections I did had trouble embracing or swallowing. I seriously doubt women’s cycles ever lined up with the cycles of the moon, and I’m not keen on the idea of women learning to do vaginal checks and advising on herbal and natural remedies for common things like yeast infections instead of going to the doctor. I also understand why the medical community would be more afraid of suppressing fertility in individuals who do not naturally go through infertile phases (men) rather than individuals who do (women).

Still, I was impressed by her explanation of how the birth control works.  Rather than compare the pill to pregnancy, she compares it to menopause, with the constant low level of artificial hormones places upon the woman’s system.  However, even beyond that, she writes:

“The pill is designed to disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates all hormonal systems in the body, including the sex hormones. This means the pill exerts changes on every bodily system. [. . .] The sex hormone cycle regulates 150 bodily systems all of which are suppressed by hormonal contraceptives and all of which are interrelated to all other body systems.”

She explains in-depth how some of the seemingly positive side effects give illusions of health while disrupting the biology of the female body.

“The diurectic action of these drugs prevent bloating and produces weight loss. However, the cellular dehydration that is a consequence has many negative effects on the whole body including increased allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, blood sugar imbalances, low energy, poor sleeping patterns, hair loss and pain from headaches to muscle aches.”

I was shocked to learn that only about 50% of women on these drugs claim to be on them for contraceptive purposes.  That is certainly something that we, Catholics, should consider before we approach any of our sisters for using hormonal drugs.  And, while I was aware that the in recent years the medical community has been aiming to push the IUD onto teens, I was astounded to hear stories of physicians refusing to remove the device upon patient’s requests.  In fact, I was so shocked that I googled it, and indeed I found even more forums filled with women complaining and even advising each other on how to remove the device on their own even with the risk of damage to the cervix.

Most interesting was her critique of 2nd wave feminist thought, which still influences some of the thoughts in 3rd wave feminism. She quotes 1969 feminist writer Clare Booth Luce with this very interesting piece:

“Modern woman is at last free, as a man is free, to dispose of her body, to earn a living . . . to try a successful career.”

What an interesting quote indeed, especially from a Theology of the Body prospective.

Most importantly, and probably to great offence of mainstream feminism, was Ms. Grigg-Spall’s commentary on viewing the female body as a part of the enemy.  She later writes:

“Women’s acceptance of the pill was not a sign of their liberation but an illustration of the internalization of this misogyny. Women were happy to medicate themselves, because they had been told for so long that they were sick. If that sickness was their responsibility then it was their responsibility to cure it, by taking a pill. [. . .] In this way, the pill is a rejection of femaleness. In swallowing the tablets women are swallowing the negative connotations that are attached to female biology.”

There were a few things I noted about various fertility awareness methods that were simply incorrect in the book. While I praise her for dispelling many methods about the effectiveness of fertility awareness, she is definitely under the impression that all methods include basal body temperature.  She describes the Creighton Fertility Care system as a method that includes charting mucus and basal body temperature while excluding the cervix check. The Creighton System, like the Billings Method, is an exclusively mucus based method.  It’s primary difference from Billing is it’s level of detail about vaginal secretions.  The special Creighton coding system allows for physicians to give each cycle a menstrual and mucus score for evaluated a woman’s overall health.  And Dr. Thomas Hilger’s is an OBGYN, not an endocrinologist.

In addition, the Justisse Method is not unique in including a cervical check. Every Catholic organization I know that teaches Sympto Thermal includes the cervix check as an option. This is simply an aspect that many Catholics don’t include because many women complain they have difficulty identifying their cervix until they’ve had a baby or are simply uncomfortable doing the check.

I’ve read a few other Catholic reviews that criticize her for referring to the religious Right in negative terms and speaking of the Catholic Church as misogynistic (It is spoken of in this fashion in passing.  She presumes her readers already hold this opinion).  I did not particularly find these statements offensive, nor did I take her offence from her pro choice view.  She certainly advocates using fertility awareness along with barrier methods and spermicide and then using Emergency Contraception as a back up in case you have unprotected sex during a fertile time.  But I see such criticisms as meaningless as they fail to appreciate the value of this information in and of itself.

And largely, from her prospective, her thoughts on the subject are well reasoned.  There are tokens of wisdom there even if I disagree with some of the major premises and thus come to different conclusions myself.

As I said before, this book is filled with “food for thought.”  I would advise every reader to approach this book intelligently, rather than dismiss the entire thing because you might disagree with a point here or there.

As Mortimer J. Adler put it in his book How to Read a Book (Another book I highly recommend to all readers).

The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day . . . but the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.

This book is all about thinking and forming your own opinion, and perhaps setting you off on your own path of continued intellectual inquiry.  (Ok, now I sound sort of snobby, don’t I?  :p)

Anyway, I just finished all the blood draws to check my progesterone and estrogen levels during my lutael phase this past Saturday.  I’ll probably post another blog just to talk about my experience with this aspect of NaproTechnology.  Everyone who has heard I’ve been having blood draws every other day for over a week is just like “What?!  Why?  What’s wrong?”  Yeah, here I am.  That crazy Catholic chick who just won’t go with the flow with everything.  I just had to get married in a Latin Mass, and I had to have a “home birth” (I put it in quotes because I actually gave birth at my in-laws).  What new and bizzarre things will I do next?

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