Why Periods? False Hopes, Popes, and the “Grandfathered” Withdrawal Bleed

The birth control pill and other hormonal contraception are popular. Menstrual periods are not. Hormonal contraception can be used to suppress menstruation — so why isn’t this method, called “continuous contraception,” more popular?

For decades, packets of birth control pills have typically contained 21 “active” pills and seven “placebo” pills. These placebos — sugar pills — trigger bleeding (which most people think of as a menstrual period, even though it’s technically called a withdrawal bleed). Because menstruation is natural, some people think this withdrawal bleed must somehow be healthier. But there are actually no health benefits — and it might also increase risk for pregnancy.


There is no reason to have a period when on the birth control pill — unless you want one.


Last month, British medical guidelines were revised to recommend continuous use of the birth control pill — that is, with no week-long “break” designed to trigger a withdrawal bleed. We could have been skipping our periods since the Pill was introduced in 1960 — so why is it only now that we are coming to see them as optional?

A flurry of recent articles has touted a rather conspiratorial claim: that the monthly bleed was included in an attempt to make the Pill more palatable to the pope. The Telegraph quoted reproductive health expert John Guillebaud: “John Rock devised [the week of placebo pills] because he hoped that the pope would accept the Pill and make it acceptable for Catholics to use. Rock thought if it did imitate the natural cycle then the pope would accept it.”

Many journalists, pundits, and bloggers have expressed outrage that we’ve been putting up with decades of unnecessary bleeding (and all the attendant pain, headaches, and missed work) just because of an unsuccessful attempt to appease the pope before most women of reproductive age were even born. But the history of the placebo week is more complicated. Continue reading

The Past Isn’t Always in the Past: Covington Catholic and the Politics of Race and Gender at Southern Private Schools

Nathan Phillips (center) leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March. Image (detail): Joe Flood

It was hard to miss the video that went viral on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

On January 20, footage of a white high school student, flanked by his classmates as he stood in front of a Native American elder, took the news and social media by storm. The student stood at a close distance, wearing an apparent smirk below his “Make America Great Again” hat. The Native elder stood calmly but firmly, beating a small hand drum and singing over the noise from the student’s classmates, many of whom also sported the iconic red baseball caps of Trump supporters. One classmate appeared to taunt the Native elder with a gesture mocking a “tomahawk chop.”


The March for Life incident is a troubling reminder of a history that links segregated private schools to the anti-abortion movement.


The scene was from Washington, D.C., where students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, were attending the anti-abortion March for Life. It was an event that coincided with an Indigenous Peoples March, a grassroots gathering of community leaders, celebrities, and activists to address the environmental and human rights issues facing Native American, First Nations, and other indigenous people.

The incident drew conflicting narratives as more footage was pieced together to show how Nick Sandmann, the Covington student, came face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, veteran, and activist. What gained general agreement was that tensions had first been elevated by verbal exchanges with another, smaller group identifying themselves as the Black Hebrew Israelites. A few members of that group could be seen subjecting the Covington students to inflammatory language and insults. Thereafter, people have been divided, often along partisan lines, on whether Sandmann or Phillips was the instigator of the face-off. Continue reading

The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.


It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.


Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures. Continue reading

Jesse Helms Is Dead: His Amendment Lives On

Here we are again, another dreaded anniversary — the Helms Amendment.

If you are a contemporary of that legislation’s author, Sen. Jesse Helms, you might also remember the title character from Sinclair Lewis’ powerful 1927 novel Elmer Gantry or the Academy Award-winning portrayal of Gantry by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film. Rev. Gantry was a evangelical preacher who used religion to destroy the lives of women. So did Sen. Helms.

2016 video frame: Global Justice Law Center

A year ago my fellow Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona blogger Rachel Port reminded us that on December 17, 1973, Congress passed the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act — today marks its 45th anniversary. In a nutshell, this legislation prohibits using U.S. foreign assistance funds to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

Other journalists and bloggers have joined Rachel in documenting the severe impacts of this legislation and its companion “Mexico City policy,” aka the “global gag rule,” denying women abortion care, particularly in poor and war-torn corners of the globe. (For a taste of its horror, remember the example of the women and girls forced to bear the children of their Boko Haram rapists.) Continue reading

What the RBG Biopic Is (and Isn’t) About

In July, when Focus Features began ramping up promotion for its forthcoming film On the Basis of Sex, many news sources reported that Felicity Jones would play a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she went to court in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. In that 1975 case, a father whose wife had died during childbirth fought for the Social Security survivor benefits that he needed to raise his son in her absence.

Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld challenged laws that were stuck in a pre-feminist past, one that made those benefits available to widows but not widowers, as if all marriages were between a man as breadwinner and a woman as homemaker — and only the latter would need to see an income replaced after a spouse’s death.


RBG understood early on that men, too, were hurt by gender discrimination.


It may be a fitting testament to Ginsburg’s role in many important gender discrimination cases that when those news sources looked for clues from a trailer and other promotional materials, they made a false match, concluding incorrectly that Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld would provide the plot for On the Basis of Sex. Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and Teen Vogue were among the media companies that made the understandable mistake.

In an interview in February, Ginsburg herself had told Forward that the film would focus on another landmark case, Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Focus Features confirmed as much when the need for corrections in other, later articles became apparent.

The Moritz and Weinberger cases have a lot of similarities. Both involved male plaintiffs who challenged laws that were based on antiquated ideas of gender roles, notions that were quickly becoming less relevant and less realistic as more women entered the workforce, often turning single-earner households into dual-earner households, and at other times becoming their household’s sole income-earner. Both cases deserve a look — even if it was only by accident that a Ginsburg biopic brought renewed attention to one of them. Continue reading

Due Protections: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act at 40

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Photo: Lynn Gilbert

Today, Susan Struck’s political positions are nothing that would stick out in a red state like Arizona. A few years ago, she joined the chorus of support for the once-threatened A-10 fighter jet program at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In a 2010 article on immigration, a writer noted her concerns about automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children.

Despite the rightward tilt that would be assigned to her views today, Struck was once at the center of a fight for reproductive justice, a cause taken up by a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, back when “The Notorious RBG” was still a lawyer for the ACLU. It was that fight that led to Ginsburg’s involvement in the writing of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, a landmark piece of legislation that turns 40 this month.


Despite 40 years of protections, pregnancy discrimination hasn’t gone away.


Now retired in an Arizona ranch community, Struck first arrived in the Copper State at the end of the 1960s, when she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Davis-Monthan. She told Elle in a 2014 interview that she reveled in her newfound independence from the family and church she left in Kentucky. “She went on the Pill and stopped attending confession,” the article recounts, and she spent her free time enjoying her sexual freedom and the chance to experience Tucson’s foothills in a newly acquired Camaro.

Still, Struck wanted more excitement, so she asked to be sent to Vietnam. She was assigned to Phù Cát Air Force Base, where she quickly hit it off with an F-4 pilot — and ended up pregnant. Struck understood that the Air Force gave officers in her situation two choices: get an abortion or be honorably discharged. It was 1970 then, still a few years before Roe v. Wade, but the armed forces had made abortion legal ahead of civilian society. Continue reading

Five Things to Know About the Morning-After Pill on Its 20th Anniversary

Medication portion of PREVEN Emergency Contraceptive Kit. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

In 1993, the New York Times Magazine posited that the morning-after pill might be “the best-kept contraceptive secret in America.” Even many doctors had no idea there was a fallback contraceptive that could be used shortly after unprotected sex or cases of rape.

In many ways, the morning-after pill had been right in front of U.S. doctors for decades. In terms of chemical composition, it was not much different from standard birth control, using the same main ingredients — synthetic hormones — in higher doses. Moreover, many of their colleagues in Europe and Asia had already been prescribing morning-after pills for years.


In 1998, years of research and advocacy led to the first FDA-approved morning-after pill.


Here, however, the secret was still largely intact. A 1994 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that two-thirds of American women had never heard of the morning-after pill or other forms of emergency contraception (EC). Less than 1 percent had ever used them.

There was an information shortfall in large part because there was no contraceptive that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically for emergency use. Some providers worked around that absence by using the chemically similar estrogen and progestin medications that were approved for regular birth control. By upping the dosage, they created a suitable morning-after pill on their own. But drug makers couldn’t label or market those birth-control pills for emergency, post-coital use, since they weren’t FDA-approved for that purpose. It also spelled problems for federally funded clinics. Federal dollars couldn’t pay for an off-label medication hack, a makeshift morning-after pill that wasn’t officially approved. Continue reading