Family planning and safe, legal abortion go hand in hand

19/07/2012 Comments Off on Family planning and safe, legal abortion go hand in hand

Marge Berer

Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in her lifetime, most of whom will have been using contraception of some kind. Yet since as long ago as the late 1930s, there has been a split in the UK between those who insisted on promoting contraception on its own because they thought abortion was too controversial and would hold back acceptance of family planning, and those who insisted that the two go hand in hand. This split exists in many countries, not just the UK, and also within many organisations with a large membership in different countries, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). It is reflected most recently in a comparison of the list of 600 groups and individuals who have endorsed the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion this year, and the 1300 that signed a letter circulated by the IPPF supporting the Family Planning Initiative – very different groups are on those lists. Yet all of them support the right to control fertility.

In 1994, the ICPD Programme of Action, a consensus document on the integration of sexual and reproductive health and rights, was only able to be passed if it included a “compromise” clause that called for abortion to be safe only if it was legal. This compromise was and remains a violation of public health principles and women’s human rights. ICPD failed to condemn the often 19th century, often colonial laws on abortion still in place in the criminal code in many countries. However, the Programme of Action did recognise that unsafe abortion was a major public health problem, one which to this day still affects some 22 million women every year, among whom 5 million end up in hospital with complications annually and tens of thousands die (WHO, Guttmacher). And young women, whom everyone wants to be  seen to be supporting these days, are in fact most at risk of unsafe abortion and also have the least access to contraception (Shah & Åhman, RHM, May 2012).

The answer is not to promote contraception in order to reduce unsafe abortion, as the FP Summit did. The answer is to promote contraception to reduce unwanted pregnancy and provide safe abortion to every woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy. That is the way to make unsafe abortion history. Abortion will not go away unless men and women stop having sex with each other or everyone is sterilised. So forget it! The growing number of countries in both the north and south, east and west, where there is 60-80% contraceptive prevalence proves that. Research shows that women and men take up contraception in large numbers if they feel they have the right to control their fertility and have access to the means to do so. There is a huge need for information, because every new generation of young women and men will know nothing about contraception or abortion unless they have access to this information. But there is no need for “demand creation”, a retrograde concept which implies lack of interest. The steadily falling fertility rate globally, falling since the 1970s, proves that, and in every country, abortion is in there, safe or unsafe, reducing the number of births. Forty-four million abortions globally and hundreds of millions of people using contraception and sterilisation prove the huge demand for the means of fertility control. “Unmet need” is more than just lack of knowledge or interest on the part of the women and men who aren’t using contraception, or using it erratically or unsuccessfully.

Women seek an abortion if they have an unwanted pregnancy, legal and safe or not, because it’s too late for contraception. There is no split between contraception and abortion from women’s perspective, they are two sides of the same coin. Even so, many of the biggest supporters of “family planning” refuse to support women’s need for safe, legal abortion. Even worse, they always talk about abortion in negative terms. They mention it along with STIs, as if it were a disease, or treat it as an annoying problem that they wish would go away, and consider it inferior to use of contraception. They even claim that use of contraception will (or should) make it go away. But this is about the realities of people’s sex lives and how sex happens, not just about well-thought-out, planned-in-advance decisions about family formation. Many pregnancies are started without any forethought at all, and all too often as one of the consequences of sexual pressure and coercion.

Campaigns for women’s right to safe, legal abortion have been going on for at least 100 years. Many of us involved in these campaigns are still seen as annoying by people who are supposed to be our colleagues. We’re told it’s sensitive, controversial, difficult, it can’t be put on the agenda, including in the FP Summit. At the same time, many of us who are fighting for abortion rights stopped supporting “family planning” years ago, because of what happened in the past, when coercive programmes put many people off “family planning” and gave it a bad name. Some family planning supporters have blamed ICPD for the neglect of family planning, because it placed family planning in a wider context. But as Gita Sen said at the Summit, ICPD in fact sought to rehabilitate family planning and restore its good name, while the barriers to safe abortion were left in place.

Today’s supporters of family planning would like everyone to forget the coercive programmes of the past, which were target-based. But they may yet become target-based again because of “results-based financing”. So let’s not confuse opposition to coercive family planning policies with being anti-family planning. Yet, it is absolutely true that provision of contraception has been neglected in recent years – and yes, this neglect must stop. At the same time, neglect also characterises how women’s unmet need for safe abortion is treated. What needs to change is that both forms of unmet need should be taken into account – together – starting with donor and national government policies.

For example, although DFID’s development aid policy has long been to fund both family planning services and abortion services, in their roll-out of these policies, funding for family planning is (I am told) separated from funding for safe abortion. That is, it is managed by different people and in different programmes within DFID and in the recipient countries, and these different people may not work closely together or know what each other are doing. Yet DFID did not see a problem in agreeing to a family planning initiative in which funding for abortion is excluded. They fund abortions anyway, they say, so what’s the problem? The problem is that separating abortion from family planning at the programmatic level allows some countries to keep abortion legally restricted and not take responsibility for unsafe abortion.

Then there’s the US, where support for family planning by USAID has been the highest in the world for many years now, while safe abortion services are not funded by them at all. Since ICPD, however, the US has funded post-abortion care, which was invented at ICPD as a way to save women’s lives who had had an unsafe abortion. Unfortunately, the evidence that post-abortion care has in fact saved many women’s lives since ICPD is sparse and not compelling. Yes, the number of deaths from complications of unsafe abortion has fallen a lot, but this may be due to self-medication with misoprostol replacing life-threatening methods.

In fact, once ICPD was over, this so-called post-abortion care should have been rejected as unethical, because it allows harm to be done unchallenged and forces health care providers to clean up the mess without the support of the law. Under US aid policy, even countries where abortion is legal who tried to use USAID funds for safe abortions as well as for contraception and sterilisation, in integrated programmes, had their “family planning” funding stopped. Research has now shown that this leads to higher rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions in those very same countries, proving how illogical such a policy is/was. Will that evidence, published only recently, lead to a change in USAID policy? Unlikely. Too sensitive. And meanwhile, a violent and fanatical anti-abortion movement flourishes in the US, where some of the most punitive and misogynistic barriers to safe abortion are being implemented with near impunity, in one state after another.

The anti-abortion movement is also anti-family planning. For years, they were very circumspect about this as they feared, quite rightly, that it would lose them support. But the current Vatican has helped to bring anti-abortion opposition to contraception and assisted conception out in the open again. This is evidenced in campaigns to ban emergency contraception and assert conscientious objection to providing contraceptives, e.g. by pharmacists. But still, many in the family planning movement do not support the right to safe abortion.

In light of the Family Planning Summit, it is a good time for abortion rights activists who have ignored family planning to link up with the family planning movement, and help to ensure that services have a rights-based approach. It is also a good time for all family planning colleagues to support the right to safe, legal abortion alongside the right to access contraception and sterilisation – and talk about abortion as a legitimate part of fertility control, a solution to unwanted pregnancy, a public health necessity for women, and a legitimate health care service. All of us should acknowledge the huge unmet need for safe, legal abortion services as well as for contraception and sterilisation services, and ensure that they are provided – and funded – together.

Many effective contraceptive methods, condoms, two types of emergency contraceptive pill and two very safe methods of early abortion – all on the WHO essential medicines list – can and should be provided at primary health care level. This includes medical abortion pills and manual vacuum aspiration for abortions up to 9-10 weeks. Some of these can even be provided during home visits by community-based health workers – the pill, condoms, injectables, emergency contraceptive pills and medical abortion pills for early abortions – as long as there are nurses, nurse-midwives or other mid-level providers who have been trained to do so. The evidence is there– this is all safe and effective. Moreover, the legitimate sort of post-abortion care, i.e. the kind that happens after safe abortions, needs to include information about and provision of contraception, just as post-partum care ought to do. So, even programmatically and clinically, the integration of family planning and abortion makes more sense than ever.

The morning after: the beginnings of an assessment of the FP Summit

16/07/2012 Comments Off on The morning after: the beginnings of an assessment of the FP Summit

Marge Berer
Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

13 July 2012

From a communications point of view, the FP Summit was a raving success. Newspapers, TV and radio all over the world covered it. Around the globe everyone reached by the media heard how wonderful family planning is and how neglected it has been, the Lancet launched a special edition , Guttmacher and others released facts and figures showing the extent of unmet need. Across the women’s health movement the listserves, Facebook and Twitter were full of it. All in all, the day – and many of the messages it gave birth to – had enthusiastic, even missionary, overtones.

On the absolutely fabulous side, Melinda Gates’ challenge to the Pope to acknowledge that contraception is ‘not controversial’ even amongst Catholic women, is likely to rock the foundations of the Vatican’s whole policy on abstinence, condoms and contraception from the grassroots of the Catholic church up. It was God’s gift to Catholics for Choice, who will be promoting Condoms-for-Life and safer sex at the upcoming AIDS conference later this month.

Also on the plus side, there were representatives of governments and many, many others who are making progressive change happen in their countries, and who spoke out about it. These are people who can make a big difference when they get home who did support comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights from the podium and the floor of the meeting, and who insisted that family planning services can only be provided within that wider remit. There were people who needed to learn what it was all about, some of whom were too young to have lived the history, but who came with strong pro-choice views.

The media exposure of the value of family planning has a huge potential for good, because it will have reached people who didn’t know family planning existed or whether it’s good for them and safe, and others who have never had a chance to talk about these matters with others. It will also have put fertility control as a public good on the map around the world. And hopefully it will spur those with expertise in sexuality and reproduction to start talking about what they know, and what is and is not true amongst all the hoopla – and to assert that the power of money must not be allowed to take precedence over public health values and human rights principles, or the values of knowledge and truth.

On the oh-God-help-us-no-no-no side, though, Melinda Gates anointed herself as the new saviour of women’s and children’s health, and the press ate it up in both pictures and words. Some of the best people in the field of sexual and reproductive health, were unexpectedly uncritical, singing the praises of this wonderful opportunity. Perhaps not surprising given the historical shortfall in funding for family planning.

A golden moment, the kind that big money and a Tory government are at home in, stage-managed by a slick public relations company called McKinsey (who describe themselves as “the trusted advisor and counsellor to many of the world’s most influential businesses and institutions”). With big pharma, having abandoned contraceptives for many years, talking about the opportunity (“70% of this market is under-served”) to make a profit from family planning needs and then give some of it back to women – as a charitable gift. Patting each other on the back for being so wonderful as to finally have recognised that women have health needs they can exploit. A truly Hollywood event, except this is not entertainment. This is women’s lives.

This golden moment, which had to happen mainly because so many governments have failed to take responsibility for the public health needs of their citizens, for maternal health, family planning, abortion, sexual health, in the only equitable manner that works – by providing publicly funded, well-resourced services.

It was a day that showed the world it was possible for one very well-meaning woman, backed by the power and money of her husband, to direct global policy and claim ownership of the provision of family planning to 120 million women and at the same time, to disparage and stigmatise women’s need for abortion to the entire world – and get away with it without being challenged. She had the courage to challenge the Pope. It is a shame that a summit attended by many of the world’s experts on these subjects could not emulate her bravery and challenge her in return.

She was not the only one who got away with it. The Summit also gave the podium to and applauded politicians from countries where millions of women have the very unmet need for contraception in whose name this Summit was called: women who are still dying from unsafe abortions because their governments are too cowardly to make abortion legal and safe; and women who are dying from complications of pregnancies because they have no access to life-saving maternity care. Countries that since the 1960s have received hundreds of millions if not billions of US dollars for family planning, which have as good as disappeared, or been squandered and misspent.

It included representatives of the very same private sectors whose services and prices for contraceptive methods and safe abortions remain inaccessible to and unaffordable for many in the world’s population who need them, especially young women and men. And not only in low- and middle-income countries, but also in the United States, a country whose health industry has made life hell for Barack Obama for trying to make health care even a little bit more affordable, excluding abortion of course, for millions of disenfranchised people. The United States – a country that has the biggest and most violent and aggressive anti-abortion movement on earth, second only to the Vatican, and some of the highest unintended pregnancy rates in the developed world, especially among poor women.

It was addressed by the Prime Minister of the UK, the Right Honourable David Cameron, who got a standing ovation for a speech about the importance of empowering women, a speech that stank of hypocrisy. A Prime Minister who is responsible for indefensible, swingeing spending cuts that are adversely affecting women, young people and children above all, including cuts in family planning, sexual health services and welfare, at a time when it has never before cost so much to raise a family. Whose Secretary of State for Health is selling off our National Health Service piece by piece, who has wasted public time and at least £1 million in public money harassing some of the real heroes of women’s rights, that is, abortion service providers, for no credible reason. Whose Minister for Public Health put an anti-abortion group on the government’s sexual health advisory group “for the sake of balance” and to propitiate anti-abortion fanatics in Parliament – a Minister who described abortion as a “sensitive” issue, after 45 years of safe, legal abortions (except for women in Northern Ireland, of course).

And now it’s the morning after. How to go on from here and engage in what will happen? It’s a pity about Melinda Gates’ prejudices against abortion. I hope she will reconsider them because it would make her a far more credible ambassador for this cause which, after all, does not belong to her.

Making change happen is in the air

13/07/2012 Comments Off on Making change happen is in the air

Marge Berer

Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

Below, are excerpts from my editorial in RHM 20(39) May 2012. This issue is about reducing maternal mortality, but the more I reflected on it the more I realised it had implications for this week’s summit on family planning.

Making change happen is in the air, from the UN Secretary-General down to the most remote village… Yet, in certain ways, the world is moving backwards when it comes to dealing with women and pregnancy. Simone Diniz calls it a return to “materno-infantilism” – treating pregnant women like children who need looking after… Today, in much of the literature, all pregnant women are called “mothers” whether they’ve ever had a baby or not. Yet pregnancy has more than one outcome and is not only about women who “deliver”. It’s also about women who experience miscarriages, stillbirths, infant deaths, lack of access to contraception, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and lifelong obstetric, reproductive and sexual morbidity. Yet these are nearly invisible in PMNCH these days, and safe abortion – an integral part of women’s right to decide the number and spacing of their children – may be made invisible in the new Family Planning Initiative as well…

The papers [in this journal issue] show that some countries are making serious efforts at strengthening and improving their health systems in relation to reproductive health care and maternity services. Based on data that show who is dying and why, they are making policy and programme changes, such as low-cost delivery services for poor and migrant women, opening new obstetric emergency care and referral centres in hospitals, training more health professionals, and providing health education for women, as in Shanghai (Du et al)…

Others are strengthening the whole public health system, especially in rural areas where most poor women live, ensuring better leadership and governance, increasing health workforce skills, supporting community-based health insurance, and increasing contraceptive services, as in Rwanda (Bucagu et al). They’re promoting peace, stability, economic growth, poverty reduction, improved primary education, better roads and communications, access to information on health and health services, and making health care free of cost for the poor, as in Cambodia (Liljestrand & Sambath)…

In contrast, in some countries, appalling, chaotic, uneven, negligent and abusive situations persist. Among the 22 million women each year who have unsafe abortions, adolescents suffer the most from complications and have the highest unmet need for contraception (Shah & Åhman). Custom, lack of perceived need, distance, lack of transport, lack of permission from husbands, cost, unwillingness to see a male doctor are still preventing women from seeking antenatal and delivery care, e.g. in northern Nigeria (Doctor et al), but in many places, these services barely exist anyway…

In the poorest of countries, women may have more pressing health needs even than for maternity care, e.g. in Haiti, where women identified access to any affordable health care, potable water, enough food to eat, any employment, sanitation and education as their most crucial problems (Peragallo Urrutia et al)…

Even more broadly, lack of national commitment has been identified as critical in 33 sub-Saharan African countries, as well as very low levels of public financing for health and health services (let alone maternity services), poor coordination between key stakeholders and partners, poorly functioning health systems with poor logistics for supply, distribution and management of essential medicines, family planning commodities, and equipment, and a chronic shortage of skilled health professionals (Ekechi et al).

In several South Asian countries, cash is being given to pregnant women to deliver in facilities, but some studies are finding, e.g. in India, that when women arrive, there is limited or no antenatal care, no birth attendants with midwifery skills, no emergency obstetric care in obvious cases of need, and referrals that never result in treatment (Subha Sri et al). And now, these same women have a sense of entitlement, and they are protesting.

Several governments in Latin America may be embarrassed to learn that their levels of budget transparency in spending on specific aspects of maternity care were found to be very low, and that they need better budgeting modalities, better health information systems and guidelines on how they might better capture data on expenditure, in order to track and plan local and national progress (Malajovich et al). Similarly, an assessment of cash transfer and voucher schemes designed to stimulate demand for services and reduce cost barriers to maternity care found increased use of maternity services in several south Asian countries, but also a need for more efficient operational management, financial transparency, plans for sustainability, evidence of equity and, above all, proven impact on quality of care and maternal mortality and morbidity (Jehan et al).

The papers [in this journal issue] describe a range of models for advocacy and taking action to expose violations of human rights, poor public health practices, absence of monitoring and regulation, failure to ensure national accountability for sexual and reproductive rights and to provide remedies and redress in the event of violations (Kismödi et al).

full editorial

All I had to do was take a pill every day, I was told, and hey presto, I didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant!

11/07/2012 Comments Off on All I had to do was take a pill every day, I was told, and hey presto, I didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant!

Marge Berer, Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

I was among the first generation of women in the 1960s to experience the miracle of the pill just at the age when I was wanting to start having sex. All I had to do was take a pill every day, I was told, and hey presto, I didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant if I didn’t want to, and it worked! But oh, if only it had all turned out to be that easy! Like one in three women in the UK today, a country where contraceptive prevalence is almost as high as it can get, I needed an abortion several years later. Again, I was lucky, the 1967 Abortion Act meant I was able to get a legal abortion. The lesson is simple – while contraception continues to be a miracle, because it helps people not to have children if and when they don’t want to, it is not enough on its own and it never has been.

Family planning has been out of the news for a long time, and suddenly it’s back. Welcome!! Bring out the red carpet, and I mean it!! Women and men need contraception now as much as they have ever done, and young women and men who are beginning to explore their sexuality together need contraception and condoms more than anyone. But there has been a lot of water under the bridge since family planning was promoted as the cure-all for the world’s ills in the 1960s when the pill came out, and everyone needs to study that history anew so that the same mistakes, of which there have been many, and the same narrow vision, are not repeated.

My generation of women’s health activists, along with a whole generation of researchers, service providers and policymakers who brought their knowledge together at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, got the world to recognise that the need for the means to control fertility, which is as old as history itself, was part of a much broader set of needs related to reproduction and sexuality, and that these were inextricably connected. These include: being able to have sex without fear of negative outcomes, being able to have sex if and only if we want to and only with whom we want to, being able to have the children we want, being able to get pregnant at all, being able not only to survive pregnancy but also still be in good health, being able to have a safe abortion without fear of death or condemnation when an unwanted pregnancy occurs, being able to protect ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases, and being able to get treatment for all the many causes of reproductive and sexual ill-health, which start with menstruation and menstrual problems, and continue into old age with things like breast and prostate cancer and uterine prolapse.

There is indeed a huge unmet need in today’s world, but the unmet need for contraception is only a fraction of the unmet need for sexual and reproductive health, and for sexual and reproductive rights. The results we should be working for encompass every aspect of the issues I have just named, and those in turn must be seen in the even wider context of the right to health, social justice and an end to poverty and violence – which were the real point of the Millennium Development Goals – not the measurable targets.

I will be blogging about these issues in the light of the FP Summit over the next weeks – watch this space!

An unholy alliance: religion, neo-liberal economics and good old fashioned patriarchy – restricting women’s abortion rights in Eastern Europe

11/05/2012 Comments Off on An unholy alliance: religion, neo-liberal economics and good old fashioned patriarchy – restricting women’s abortion rights in Eastern Europe

A report from guest blogger Charlotte Gage on ‘How much does abortion cost?’ a session organised by ASTRA Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at the AWID Forum in Istanbul.

I attended this session where speakers from Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia outlined the economic dimension of sexual and reproductive rights in their countries, and the increasing restrictions on access to abortion.

Provision of abortion and other reproductive health services are under threat from neo-liberal economics which is increasingly restricting state-funded services throughout the region. This is being fuelled, by ideological opposition to abortion from both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sometimes with funding and support from US anti-choice organisations which is thought may include the US-based Human Life International and Opus Dei.

Most countries in the region have experienced reforms to health systems following democratic transition from Communism, but the results of these vary. The restrictive abortion laws in countries such as Romania and Albania under Communism were seen as a social experiment to increase the population and provide new generations of workers, and have since been relaxed. More recently however, Ukraine and Russia have tried to implement restrictive laws, to reverse a decline in population.

The influence of religion varies throughout the region. In Poland the Catholic Church still has a strong influence, and as its access to public resources increases, through provision of adoption services, it has a vested financial interest – as well as ideological one to opposing reproductive rights. In other countries it is the influence of, and funding from, the US anti-choice movement that is driving forward an anti-choice agenda.

The increasing reluctance by governments to pay for contraception and abortion services is also having an impact.

In Hungary, an advertising campaign in which images of fetuses asked not to be murdered was funded by PROGRESS EU funding – a fund aimed at supporting equality. The Government was forced to stop the campaign after feminist organisations complained to the European Parliament.

In tandem with ideological tactics aimed at creating attitudinal change, the budget for reproductive health in Hungary, which supported women who could not afford to pay for an abortion, has been significantly reduced with no explanation. Women seeking home birth are subject to unaffordable insurance premiums and in one case a midwife has been imprisoned for supporting a woman to give birth at home. For PATENT – People Opposing Patriarchy these were all cited as examples of the continued repression of women’s reproductive rights in Hungary, patriarchy in action, and the denial of women’s autonomy.

Freedom of Choice, Slovakia,  has campaigned against the lack of unbiased and accurate information on family planning. It also takes on the  influence of the Catholic Church hierarchy which is opposing progressive policies such as inclusion of more information in school textbooks and making contraception more affordable.

The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning described how in 1993 Poland became the first country in Eastern Europe radically to restrict abortion and is now, regrettably, serving as a model for other  Governments in the region. Official figures show just 600 abortions were performed in Poland in 2010 (compared to 8,000 in 1989), but this figure hides the large number of privately performed abortions and those provided to Polish women abroad.

In many of the countries it is the actual cost of abortion for women that creates the main barrier to accessing services. Women on low wages sometimes pay the equivalent to the average monthly wage for an abortion. In Slovakia, where there are no state controls on the maximum price of contraception, prices are rising and contraception is becoming unobtainable for many women. Moreover, across the region professional resistance to medical abortion combined with high costs means women are denied the option of choosing this extremely safe method of abortion.

An interesting response to the economic and ideological squeeze on abortion access came from a speaker from the Romanian organization European Centre for Public Initiatives (ECPI) which said that Romania has not yet fully learned the lessons from its past. Though the liberalisation of abortion in Romania has led to significant reductions in maternal mortality there have been recent attempts to restrict and limit abortion in Romania, including proposing mandatory (biased) counselling and a three day waiting period before a woman is able to have an abortion.

ECPI believes that calculating the financial benefits of providing reproductive health care may be a powerful tool in opposing further restrictions. To this end, it is attempting to estimate the full cost of unsafe abortion including:  the health care costs following unsafe procedures; social costs including sick leave and disability benefits if the woman is injured; the costs of childcare if the woman dies;  and violence against women services for those who experience violence following abortion.

It may ‘leave a bad taste in the mouth’ to try to put a monetary value on women’s lives, but in the face of ideological opposition to women’s reproductive autonomy, and governments’ focus on cutting budgets, it might be the most powerful argument we can make.

Charlotte Gage

With thanks to Katarzyna Pabijanek – ASTRA Network Coordinator

Hormonal contraception and risk of HIV: new studies, the issues, and the response of the World Health Organization

20/02/2012 Comments Off on Hormonal contraception and risk of HIV: new studies, the issues, and the response of the World Health Organization

Many feminists, including me, actively opposed the hormonal injectable contraceptive Depo Provera (DMPA) three decades ago  ̶  it was at a time when certain women weren’t being given a choice of method or any information about possible side effects, and before long-term post-marketing studies began to be done to monitor long-term safety. Here in the UK, we demanded that all women be given information about side effects and a choice of methods, and we called for long-term safety studies. The research was duly done, and it found that the side effects were within the range of what experts consider to be safe and acceptable. Once these were known and women began to be given a choice of method, there was nothing more to oppose.

Injectable contraception has distinct advantages  ̶  it is highly effective, the woman and her partner need do nothing more in between injections to gain protection from unwanted pregnancy, and women can use it without partner consent or knowledge if they need to. However, like all hormonal methods, female sterilisation and IUDs, injectables do not provide protection against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. For that, people need to use condoms or other forms of safe sex, or always have sex with only one partner (who is negative) who also always has sex only with them (also negative).

Many studies have been done on whether hormonal contraceptives increase HIV risk or not, and the findings have sometimes shown an increased risk and sometimes not. This variation is because there are a lot of confounding factors and risks involved that are extremely difficult to control for. On PubMed, for example, a study on this subject at the very top of the page using the keywords “Depo Provera and HIV risk” today reached the following conclusion: “In this study conducted among [5,567] South African women, hormonal contraception did not significantly increase the risk of HIV acquisition. However, the effect estimate does not rule out a moderate increase in HIV risk associated with DMPA use found in some other recent studies.”[i]

Several other recent studies, however, have found an increased risk of HIV acquisition among Depo Provera users. As a result the Department of Reproductive Health and Research/Human Reproduction Programme at the World Health Organization held an expert consultation several weeks ago to consider the latest evidence and decide whether it warranted a change in their current guidance, dating from 2009, on this subject. They decided not to change their current advice. Below is the press release they sent out a few days ago, explaining this. The fact remains, it’s the lack of safe sex/condom use and sex with more than one partner, or with a partner who has more than one partner, that really puts women and men at risk of HIV. That hasn’t changed since the HIV epidemic began.

WHO Press Release (a different version of this release is available on the WHO site):

WHO upholds guidance on hormonal contraceptive use and HIV

Geneva, 16 February 2012. Following new findings from recently published epidemiological studies, HRP convened a technical consultation (from 31 January to 1 February 2012) regarding hormonal contraception and HIV acquisition, progression and transmission. It was recognized that this issue was likely to be of particular concern in countries where women have a high lifetime risk of acquiring HIV, where hormonal contraceptives (especially progestogen-only injectable methods) constitute a large proportion of all modern methods used and where maternal mortality rates remain high. The meeting was held in Geneva between 31 January and 1 February 2012, and involved 75 individuals representing a wide range of stakeholders. Specifically, the group considered whether the guideline Medical eligibility criteria for contraceptive use, Fourth edition 2009 (MEC) should be changed in light of the accumulating evidence.

After detailed, prolonged deliberation, informed by systematic reviews of the available evidence and presentations on biological and animal data, GRADE profile summaries on the strength of the epidemiological evidence, and analysis of risks and benefits to country programmes, the group concluded that the World Health Organization should continue to recommend that there are no restrictions (MEC Category 1) on the use of any hormonal contraceptive method for women living with HIV or at high risk of HIV. However, the group recommended that a new clarification (under category 1) be added to the MEC for women using progestogen-only injectable contraception at high risk of HIV as follows:

Some studies suggest that women using progestogen-only injectable contraception may be at increased risk of HIV acquisition, other studies do not demonstrate this association. A WHO expert group reviewed all the available evidence and agreed that the data were not sufficiently conclusive to change current guidance. However, because of the inconclusive nature of the body of evidence on possible increased risk of HIV acquisition, women using progestogen-only injectable contraception should be strongly advised to also always use condoms, male and female, and other preventive measures. Expansion of contraceptive method mix and further research on the relationship between hormonal contraception and HIV infection is essential. These recommendations will be continually reviewed in the light of new evidence.

The group further wished to draw the attention of policy-makers and programme managers to the potential seriousness of the issue and the complex balance of risks and benefits. The group noted the importance of hormonal contraceptives and of HIV prevention for public health and emphasized the need for individuals living with or at risk of HIV to also always use condoms, male and female, as hormonal contraceptives are not protective against HIV transmission or acquisition.[ii]


[i] Morrison CS et al. Hormonal contraception and the risk of HIV acquisition among women in South Africa. AIDS 2012;26(4):497-504.

[ii] Technical statement: Hormonal contraception and HIV and background documentation.

http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/family_planning/hc_hiv/en/index.html

Jingle pills indeed

16/12/2011 Comments Off on Jingle pills indeed

This post first appeared on the BMJ Group Blog, 12th December 2011

Many years ago now, when news of female sterilisation first came out, Catholic priests in Puerto Rico and other Catholic countries preached from their pulpits against women being sterilised. As a result many more women learned that sterilisation existed, and many went out from church asking where to get it. In effect, the church gave family planning free advertising space by opposing it. Recently, the Daily Mailand others who rant against emergency contraception and abortion have played a similar role.

The British pregnancy advisory service (Bpas) received widespread coverage for their Christmas morning-after pill campaign, in which they offer to send women who request it free emergency contraception if they phone in and discuss it with a nurse.

This campaign represents several major advances in support of women who may be having sex without using a regular contraceptive method, but do not want to get pregnant. First, Bpas are making the service available by phone in advance of the “emergency” nature of the need. Thus, just as we keep pain medication in the medicine cabinet in case we get a headache, women are being encouraged to have morning-after pills on hand, in case they need them. Second, they are making the pills free when many chemists charge £25 for one dose, which many young and unemployed women would find prohibitive, and the phoneline will be open when GPs and chemists are closed. Third, they are able to broach regular contraceptive use with the women who phone and encourage them to start regular method use.

The morning-after pill has been available over the counter from chemists without a prescription for over-16s since 2001. So all the palaver about Bpas suddenly making it as easy as dialling for a pizza is silly. In any case, if you’ve had unprotected sex, the morning-after pill will help you far more than pizza. There are people who simply don’t want any form of birth control to be easily accessible and who still claim that emergency contraception (and abortion) promote promiscuity, just as their anti-abortion forbears claimed about the contraceptive pill and female sterilisation in their day. In the end, it’s sex they’re against. Perhaps Nadine Dorries should try putting that on prescription!

A Cochrane review in 2010 found that women who received an advance supply of the morning-after pill had the same chance of becoming pregnant as those who did not have early access to the method. However, these pills do prevent pregnancy when they are used. It seems that many of the women who have unprotected sex and get pregnant without wanting to are not the ones actually obtaining and using the morning-after pill. Perhaps Bpas’ campaign, with the help of all the media who have given it space, will help to change that.

According to the Bpas press office, 1,000 women phoned in the first 48 hours. If many more women find out about this method and start to keep a dose or two at home in case they need it, there is a far better chance they can avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary who doesn’t want responsibility for the NHS, told the Daily Telegraph that he would prefer there to be face-to-face counselling. Is that actually necessary when only a few questions need answering? And, someone has to seek face-to-face counselling first. For those who don’t, or won’t, this can only be a good thing.

Indeed, helplines for health-related issues are becoming more common and their value is clear. The FPA, for example, has run a helpline for years and has an excellent record of informing and referring for services for family planning and sexual health. The new aspect of Bpas’ campaign, sending the pills through the post, is like ordering something on the internet. Why not?

As for the under-16s, let’s get real. The under-16s who have sex may only do so very irregularly. But if they’re going to have sex, they need access to contraception. The morning-after pill may not be their best option in the long run, but it should be there if they need it.

We need contraception to be in the news more often – it’s good news. I applaud Bpas and all the media who have publicised their campaign. Jingle pills indeed!  Happy holidays!

On 11th January 2012 an update of the situation appeared on Abortion Review.

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