Contrary to popular belief, using birth-control pills for many years
does not impair a woman's ability to conceive—in fact, it may enhance itThe Economist, 10 October 2002
contraceptive pills have had to put up with a lot of worries over the
years—deep-vein thrombosis scares, unwanted weight gain and migraine
headaches, to name just a few. Women who stop taking the Pill are often
advised to “detox” themselves for a few months before trying to
conceive. They are further warned that getting pregnant may be harder
than it would have been had they never taken chemical contraceptives.
so, suggests a study just published in Human Reproduction. Alexandra
Farrow, an epidemiologist at Brunel University, in London, and her
colleagues, looked at planned pregnancies in 8,497 couples. The couples
were asked to fill in a questionnaire that inquired about such matters
as age, drinking and smoking habits, Pill use and how long it took to
It turned out that, far from being less fertile
than normal, women who had taken the Pill for at least five years were
more likely than non-Pill users to conceive within 12 months of
starting to try. Some 90% succeeded, as opposed to 85% of those who had
not taken the Pill. In fact, the longer a woman had taken contraceptive
pills, the more likely she was to conceive quickly, even after other
factors were taken into account.
These findings support the idea
that the Pill keeps a woman's ovaries young. Chris Ford of the
University of Bristol, one of Dr Farrow's co-authors, speculates that
by preventing ovulation and the stresses that it puts on the
reproductive system, Pill-using women may, in effect, be cheating time.
Pill use may also maintain a woman's limited store of eggs, which some
people think are ovulated in order, from best to worst.
researchers cite work carried out a few years ago in Australia. This
found that women who had taken the Pill for years were less likely to
suffer age-related miscarriages, which are usually caused by bad eggs.
Pill-using women over the age of 30 cut their risk of miscarriage from
28% to 7%, according to that study. The next phase will attempt to find
out if prolonged Pill use pushes back the menopause, as this theory
suggests it should.
All of which is an amusing twist to a tale
that began in the 1950s, when a gynaecologist called John Rock first
administered oestrogen and progesterone—the main components of the
Pill—to a group of women. Rock's goal was not contraception, but
conception. His patients were having trouble conceiving, and he
reckoned that their ovaries might do better after a short break from
ovulating. He appeared to be right. But the preparation he was using
was then reformulated as the birth-control pill. What goes around, it
seems, comes around—eventually.