The Birth Control Pill as Therapy
The moral doctrine of the Church judges human behavior, but is silent on chemical compounds. Most people do not know that it is permissible for Catholic women to use the birth control pill under carefully defined conditions when the intent is not to impair their fertility.
Sometimes a young woman will take the Pill for non-contraceptive purposes, such as clearing up severe cases of acne or reducing hirsutism (excess body hair growth). Other health problems that the Pill might ameliorate are primarily gynecological in nature, such as painful periods, pre-menstrual syndrome, heavy bleeding, or endometriosis (an abnormal growth of endometrial, or uterine lining cells, outside the uterus). When used for these purposes, the Pill is serving a therapeutic purpose and can in this instance legitimately be called health care. However, there is always the possibility that the prompt suppression of symptoms will lead to neglect of investigation and cure of the underlying disease or disorder.
When used for the purpose for which it was designed, the Pill does not heal the reproductive system, but instead cripples it. If used for its intended purpose, it cannot reasonably be called either health care or therapeutic. It is, in fact, the polar opposite of health care, given the great number of serious and incidental side effects that women frequently suffer from its use.
So from the Church’s perspective, it is morally licit to use the Pill for off-label therapy under the principle of double effect if other treatments are not available or feasible. In this case, the good effect is the treatment of a serious ailment, and the unintended evil effects arise in the form of a myriad of health risks and the neutralization of fertility. This last effect would not be an “evil” if the woman in question was firmly committed to living a chaste life.1
How Pills Work to Reduce Acne
Acne in women is often caused by the production of the male sex hormone (androgen) testosterone in the ovaries, which leads to a production of excess sebum oil. This oil clogs pores and promotes acne breakouts.
Dermatologists have been using combined oral contraceptives (COCs) to treat severe acne for more than thirty years. COCs are composed of two active compounds: Estrogen and a synthetic progesterone, or progestin.
From the viewpoint of suppressing acne, there are two types of COC. The first is the class of androgenic pills, which contain androgen-based progestins such as norgestrel, norethindrone acetate and levonorgestrel, and which often actually promote acne. The second class of Pill is anti-androgenic, which means that they fight acne by promoting the production of sex hormone binding globulin, which binds free (biologically active) testosterone by up to 50% and in turn reduces the production of sebum oil.
To this date, three brands of anti-androgenic COCs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the purpose of suppressing acne:
- Ortho Tri-Cyclen (estrogen and norgestimate)
- Estrostep (estrogen and norethindrone)
- YAZ (estrogen and drospirenone).
The anti-androgenic progestins in these pills lower androgen levels and reduce acne after a period of about three to six months of continuous use.2
Any woman considering using birth control pills to reduce acne should examine the standardized patient information pamphlets that come with Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep and YAZ. These can be found in several formats on the web. The pamphlets show that each of these pills has a large number of serious negative side effects, including stroke, heart attack, and deep vein thrombosis. Other side effects include sudden onset blindness, severe headaches, jaundice, depression and dramatic weight changes.3 The side effects are not necessarily limited to those that are short-term: The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that the Pill is a Group 1 carcinogen, its most dangerous classification.
Women who face this situation should ask their physicians to research the single-purpose anti-acne medications that are widely available. Why face the hazards of birth control pill use unnecessarily?
Although the use of the Pill for non-contraceptive purposes is licit, there are certain serious moral considerations.
The primary problem is that a young single woman who is not sexually active but who is taking the Pill for cosmetic reasons may be tempted to engage in sexual activity because she believes that she is “safe” from pregnancy. In fact, the very fact that she believes herself to be temporarily sterile, when viewed against the background of immense societal pressures to “have sex,” may push her over the edge. If he knows about it, her boyfriend may also see her contraceptive use as a “green light” for sexual activity and put pressure on her to comply with his desires.
At times, the temptation for a woman to engage in premarital sexual activity might be overwhelming in compromising situations, and belief that the Pill will make her “safe” might be the deciding factor. After all, many young women do not participate in sexual activity because they are frightened of the consequences of unmarried pregnancy.
The results of sexual activity in this case would be the same as for every other sexually active woman. Every experienced crisis pregnancy worker has counseled young women who came in for pregnancy tests and said, “Well, my doctor (or parents) put me on the Pill anyway, so I decided to start having sex.” In other words, use of the Pill is a very serious temptation to sin and will probably result in one or more of the galaxy of problems that follow: sexually transmitted diseases, serious side effects, loss of reputation and self-respect, deterioration of relationships and, of course, unplanned pregnancy because of the failure rate of the Pill among younger first-year users.4
Single women using the Pill for non-contraceptive purposes have a relatively straightforward decision to make — simply make a firm resolution to abstain, and then stick with it.
The situation becomes more complicated for married couples. Sometimes a married couple has a truly serious reason for the wife not to become pregnant. Usually this reason is a foreseeable health problem where a pregnancy would seriously threaten her life as determined by a qualified physician. In such rare situations, the husband and wife should seek a second opinion from a known pro-life doctor. Such a couple may use periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy, an effective method that is acceptable to different religions.
But what about the wife who suffers from serious gynecological problems that could be regulated by the Pill? The problem would have to be very serious indeed for her to have recourse to the Pill. In general, if she would be unable to have sexual relations for a long period of time due to her health difficulties, and if all other treatment alternatives had been exhausted, it would be licit for her to take the Pill until the problem was suppressed. If the problem is long-term in nature, it would be wise to consult with a pro-life OB surgeon (visit the website of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists to find one near you).
The couple, however, would still have to abstain. As we have seen, the manufacturer’s standardized patient information pamphlets show that all of the available pills today have two general mechanisms of action — contraceptive and abortifacient. Furthermore, studies have shown all of the currently available birth control pills cause an average of one or two “early abortions” each year, and the evil of the loss of life due to a possible abortion certainly outweighs the good of marital relations.5
In general, great prudence should be exercised when a woman, either married or unmarried, uses the Pill for authentically therapeutic purposes. Unmarried women especially must avoid near occasions of sin and maintain a relentless vigilance and discipline in the face of temptations that they may face.
Husbands and boyfriends of women who use the Pill for therapy must also maintain self-control. They should also be a source of strength and support for their wives and girlfriends as those they love struggle with difficult health problems. It is difficult to think of a more generous example of sacrificial love than that of a husband who foregoes sexual relations for an extended period of time for the sake of the health and well-being of his wife.
 Father Tad Pacholczyk, Director of Education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “The Pill and Health Care?” Arlington Catholic Herald, January 24-30, 2013, page 8.
 Robert A. Hatcher, M.D., M.P.H. Contraceptive Technology [Atlanta: Ardent Media] (20th Revised Edition, 2011), pages 254, 267-268 and 317.
 Patient Information Pamphlets by the makers of Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep and YAZ.
 Robert A. Hatcher, M.D., M.P.H. Contraceptive Technology [Atlanta: Ardent Media] (20th Revised Edition, 2011). Table 26-1, “Percentage of Women Experiencing and Unintended Pregnancy During the First Year of Typical Use and the First Year of Perfect Use of Contraception and the Percentage Continuing Use at the End of the First Year. United States,” page 791. This table shows a first-year user failure rate of 9% for the birth control pill.
 The question may be asked: What about the case of a purely contraceptive Pill? In fact, the older high-dose Pills were almost entirely contraceptive in their method of action, but side effects were much more severe than for the newer low-dose pills. If such a pill were purely contraceptive, the objective of taking the Pill would be healing. The unintended evil effect would be a temporary inability to conceive, and so double effect would apply in this case. However, no purely contraceptive Pill is being manufactured today, so the question is moot.
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Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.