In her work, Grigg-Spall challenges the claim that hormonal contraceptives are liberating to women. In fact, she argues the opposite. Grigg-Spall asserts that hormonal contraceptives are oppressive to women because they were developed with misogynist and patriarchal-capitalist ideas about the inferiority of women's bodies and the need to place them under male control. She likens the disregard toward women's wishes to use non-hormonal contraceptives and their concerns about the effects that the hormones have on their bodies that many doctors display as the same dismissive attitude that prevailed in the Victorian period when women were deemed irrational and diagnosed as "hysterical." She writes, "The emotional side effects of hormonal contraceptives are not psychosomatic but women are frequently told by their doctors the side effects are just the result of over-thinking, reading too much on the internet or the excessive stress of our lives." As such, many women are left doubting the validity of their experiences while on the pill and may continue to do so even after they come off and feel better.
Grigg-Spall challenges the freedom of taking the pill when women are "not given the full knowledge of how their bodies work, either on or off the pill." Grigg-Spall informs:
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 (including the endocrine, neurologic, and immunologic systems). Therefore hormonal contraceptives impact: energy levels, memory and concentration, motor coordination, adrenalin levels, pain threshold, vitamin retention, blood glucose levels, thyroid and adrenal function, sleep patterns [... and] immune system.Grigg-Spall explains that the pill prevents bloating and promotes weight loss through cellular dehydration. Therefore, what many women see as a positive of pill-use is actually a symptom of the dehydration on the cellular level which also leads to increased allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, low energy, and other negative reactions. Thus, Grigg-Spall is able to explain in understandable language what likely no woman on the pill has heard from her doctor, "On the pill no woman's body is capable of functioning at its optimum level. The body has a delicate system of balance and each woman's system is different, though every woman taking the pill will experience, over time, impaired physical and mental health." Grigg-Spall also comments on the difficulty of women to identify impaired health, which can accumulate over time, as a reaction of pill-use when symptoms can begin one, five, or more years after beginning the pill or when her health has declined slowly over time, rather than as a sudden event.
Sweetening the Pill explores how pharmaceutical companies used "the Virginia Slims' model of advertising to encourage otherwise healthy women to take a medication. By associating the pill with independence, attractiveness, glamour, and modernity, the pill was seen as less as a drug and more as a hard-won lifestyle choice for the modern woman. She writes:
Taking the pill might be seen as an act of trying to get beyond femaleness. As femaleness in our culture is understood in the negative, escaping its confines is good and progressive. Any dislike we develop of being female or having a female body is rooted in the history of female bodies being seen as problematic and in need of male control.The work also examines the relationship of pharmaceutical companies to doctors. Though doctors receive lunches, dinners, and gifts from companies, they are not currently required to disclose information as to such involvements.
The gaps that exists in the current medical literature is also addressed. Since, typically the funding for contraceptive research comes from pharmaceutical companies, many have a vested interest in positive outcomes. Grigg-Spall explains:
Emotional experience is flattened and there are studies that reflect this, albeit in a positive light. The studies read an absence of emotional reaction to exterior forces as a desirable and positive affect. The researchers work from the standpoint that women do not enjoy their monthly ups and downs. When the pill stops the downs, it also stops the ups — it does not differentiate. Women are told that the pill causes their body to mimic pregnancy when in fact the opposite is true; it cause the body to maintain very low levels of hormones.She also states that there is no study that has examined the effects of the pill equal to the amount of time that many women use the pill nor one that has studied any potential effects on children born to women who use it.
Grigg-Spall also addresses the use of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs). Grigg-Spall informs that these are often tested on poor women in developing countries before being brought to developed nations. In regards to the ParaGard, a non-hormonal IUD, she discusses how it creates an inflammatory response in the woman's body, and can thus suppress immune function and possibly lead to copper toxicity. Grigg-Spall explains:
The imbalances that can occur as a result of the increase in copper and the whole body response to inflammation can open a woman up to increased infections. The thyroid and adrenal glands and nervous system are very sensitive to copper imbalances and this can cause a myriad of emotional and neurological problems.[...] Many women turn to the copper IUD after becoming disillusioned with hormonal birth control without realizing it can potentially cause some similar health problems.She also discusses the coercive nature of LARCs when used in population control programs or when first-world women have to make multiple appointments with their doctor in order to have them removed. Thus, due to these issues and the systemic change that they can induce in women's bodies, Grigg-Spall feels that these methods too are problematic and also rooted in the belief that femaleness itself is bad.
Grigg-Spall peppers her book with accounts of women who describe their experiences on the pill and coming off of it. Many described that after ceasing the pill, they felt a sort of "awakening" as, they were able to feel happiness and think clearly again for the first time in perhaps more than a decade.
I found myself having a number of reactions as I moved through Grigg-Spall's work. I found myself angry as I read accounts of women simply given a prescription to a different brand of the pill rather than the attention and consideration of taking their concerns seriously. Grigg-Spall asks, "What is the social impact of providing eighty percent of generally healthy women with a drug that makes them sick?" As Grigg-Spall explained that an increase in acne was considered unacceptable for a male contraceptive being developed, I felt the injustice that at the same time strokes; heart-attacks; breast, liver, and cervical cancer; and the systemic altering of women's whole functioning is considered acceptable for women's contraceptives, and also that the medical community has frequently reiterated that in their opinion the benefits of the pill outweigh their risks.
Though some have dismissed her inclusion of the accounts of women's experiences in place of medical studies as "anecdotal" and therefore unacceptable for inclusion in any serious work, I feel that in bypassing the profit-driven "science" of contraceptive-research and by giving women who have been harmed by contraceptives a voice (and one needn't search far to know that these experiences are not so rare), Grigg-Spall has written something that is brave, subversive, and decidedly feminist.
I felt happy as the work discusses the Fertility Awareness Method and educates its readers on its high effectiveness rates and the empowerment that can come from simply having this knowledge of how our bodies naturally work and being able to use it to autonomously plan your family size (without having to plead with your doctor to remove an IUD first or simply wait an indefinite amount of time for your body to recover from hormonal methods) and as an indicator of health. I also felt a sense of freedom in that I, myself, have never used artificial contraception and have the experience of just being myself, and yet, sadness at the same time that the comfortableness that I feel in my skin, the pride that I feel in my feminine body and capabilities is by no means common. As a Catholic, I felt some sadness at the need for her to make clear her non-Catholic status so that the concerns she has with birth control will be taken seriously. I certainly don't fault her for doing so. I likely would too if I were in her position. I know from experience that you can quote numerous secular sources and peer-reviewed studies, but if you are Catholic, many will dismiss you anyway.
Grigg-Spall and I do have our differences. She is pro-choice and does not have any opposition to the use of barrier methods. She also seems to just take as a matter of faith the ability of condoms to prevent STDs. As Thailand and the Philippines show, I myself feel that throwing condoms at people with the encouragement to "be safe" is reckless. In 1984, the two countries had similar HIV rates. In response, Thailand mounted an aggressive condom campaign, while the highly Catholic Philippines mounted a chastity and faithfulness in marriage campaign. In 2003 Thailand had an HIV infection rate 80 times higher than that of the Philippines, and the Philippines is considered a low HIV-prevalence country. Several countries have continued to see soaring HIV rates in spite of aggressive condom distribution and marketing.
I also found it ironic that on the one hand she complains about the dismissive attitudes towards women's concerns by the medical community, but then blames the mere presence of those with religious convictions in the contraceptive debate as the reason why more research in this area has lacked funding. I feel she should rather blame it on the dismissive attitudes towards those with religious belief and the arrogance of thinking that such people can't possibly have anything meaningful to contribute to such a discourse. Grigg-Spall feels that the use of NaPro Technology is correct in its methodology but is concerned because it is founded in "oppressive Catholic teachings regarding women." I found myself wondering what were those "oppressive teachings". The teaching that our bodies and sexuality is sacred and therefore we must never be used as an object? The teaching that sex is a renewal of the wedding vows, a re-committal of the spouses to one another, a sign of their love and respect for one another and their commitment to honor and cherish one another as long as they both shall live? I guess I fail to see how requiring respect and reverence for the bodies of self and others is oppressive.
There are other issues. Grigg-Spall includes a list of references and works for further study at the end of the book, but I wished she would provide more detailed sources. At times I found myself searching for a footnote on a specific sentence only to find none.
Despite these issues, I feel that the work as a whole asks bold questions that too few are asking today. The book contains invaluable information that women aren't getting elsewhere. As such, I feel it is a must-read for women currently on the pill or thinking about going on it. I also feel it can provide validation to many women who thus far have received only invalidation. It can also be a useful resource for those like myself who provide support for women actively coming off of artificial contraceptives. Grigg-Spall writes, "Science has long been used to justify the oppression of women and perhaps it is ignorance of this history that cause women to so enthusiastically and unquestioningly accept drugs and devices as their liberators." Though some will find her views threatening, and some may dismiss her conclusions, I'm sure there will be others who will, like Grigg-Spall, begin to ask questions and have the audacity to at least begin the conversation.