The Period At The End Of The Pill

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As a CBS News correspondent, I learn something new every day. My latest education: oral contraception and its history. It came through reporting on Lybrel, the controversial new birth-control pill that was just approved by the FDA.

Lybrel eliminates the monthly menstrual cycle — indefinitely. Women take it every single day for as long as they hope to avoid pregnancy.

The choice to keep or dispense with periods is now up to the women of America. Lybrel's maker, Wyeth, and even doctors involved in its clinical trials say it's no riskier than taking traditional birth-control pills.

Other health care professionals would prefer more study on Lybrel's long-term effects. But no matter where you fall in the argument, here are some facts I found very interesting:

  • All forms of the pill work by stopping ovulation and suppressing periods. That should mean, technically, women taking the traditional "three weeks on/one week off" pill packet shouldn't bleed every month. But they do.

  • According to longtime contraceptive researcher Sheldon Segal, a professor of pharmacology at Cornell Medical School, those aren't "real periods." Women on traditional birth-control pills aren't shedding an unfertilized egg with the uterine lining. They're experiencing hormone withdrawal bleeds from the placebo effect.

    So why the smoke and mirrors? Segal says it was all a marketing decision made decades ago when the pill was first developed. Inventors of the pill wanted to make women more comfortable with the idea of oral contraception. This was, after all, the early 1960s. The pill was the first oral contraceptive and the first medication given to healthy women for any purpose at all.

    "It's not a revolution. I would call it an evolution," says Lybrel investigator Dr. Anne Davis of New York Presbyterian Hospital. It's an evolution with an apparent market.

    One study by Linda Andrist, a nurse and professor at MGH Institutes of Health Professions in Boston, found that 59 percent of the estimated 1,900 women surveyed are interested in eliminating their menstrual cycles, a third of them for good.

    Lybrel will hit drugstores in July. The debate will continue. And human nature's obsession with convenience could give Mother Nature a run for her money in the battle to control bodily functions.
    • Michelle Miller

      Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.

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