New Pill To Skip Menstruation

Birth control pills in Ortho Dialpak Dispenser, with female symbol, on texture, partial graphic
For many women, the thought of menstrual periods conjures up images of PMS, cramps and a heap of feminine hygiene products. But relief may be on the way.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering Seasonale, a new type of birth control pill that will reduce the number of yearly menstrual periods from 13 to four, or once each season.

"I'm the type of person that when I get my monthly, I'm just, like, 'Don't touch me.' I just - 'Go away!' I just don't want anyone around me," says Tricia Stubbs.

For the stay-at-home mother, the decision to try the birth control pill Seasonale was two-fold.

"I'm done having children. So I could have easily gone and had my tubes tied. But that wouldn't have done anything for health prevention for me," she says.

Stubbs is one of 1,400 women in a clinical trial of the new pill designed to suppress monthly menstruation.

"I have a family history of reproductive health disorders at a very young age. So, I was hoping to, if not prevent them completely, at least have a little bit more control over them, and keep healthier longer," she adds.

Dr. William Gibbons, a reproductive specialist at Eastern Virginia Medical School, which developed and is testing Seasonale, says, "They're the same types of health benefits to using Seasonale as it would be for anyone who's taking the pill. There's a reduction in the number of ovarian cysts, there's a reduction in instance of endometrial cancer. There's a reduction of ovarian cancer."

Stubbs is not the only woman who likes the idea.

"When you ask women would they be willing to move their cycles around, more than 90 percent of women have indicated in different studies that they would appreciate the opportunity of doing so," Dr. Gibbons says.

While Seasonale is considered as effective and safe as traditional birth control pills, the obvious question remains, is it natural to manipulate the female reproductive system?

"There is no evidence that there's a benefit to the women of having a monthly cycle," Dr. Gibbons says.

There are some critics who think that suppressing menstruation is not natural. But then, the pill is not natural either, she argues

Seasonale works like the conventional pill, by suppressing ovulation, causing the cervical mucus to thicken and become hostile to sperm, and preventing the lining of the uterus (endometrium) from growing thick enough for a fertilized egg to imbed itself. The hormones in Seasonale vary slightly by suppressing the growth of the endometrium entirely; this further reduces pregnancy risks and causes periods to be lighter than ever.

The pill contains a combination of two hormones commonly used in other oral contraceptives, but in significantly lower doses - an estrogen (ethinyl estradiol) and a progestin (levonorgestrel).

The cumulative amount of hormones in Seasonale is less than in other pills, even though the pills are taken for 84 days rather than the normal 21 days before the woman takes seven days off in order to menstruate.

Dr. Anita Nelson, Chief of the Women's Health Care Clinic at The Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles tells The Early Show the aim is to take away the pain many omen have with regular periods.

She explains, "A woman goes three months with birth control pills and then takes the week off and has a period every three months. So it's only four periods a year rather than 13." And she says it is absolutely safe, even if you decide to get pregnant after taking the pill, the fertility rate will not be affected.

She says, "When you stop taking the pill ,the system is cleared in the same amount of time. We've used this for years for women who have had particular problems related to their periods. Now it's time for to us say,'What about women who are suffering from pain?' We know the number one reason that women age 25 and younger miss school and miss work is because of painful cramps. Just think of what a woman's life is, if every month for a day or two she's bedridden. How is she going to keep it up?"

Dr. Nelson however warns, "Any woman who cannot take the birth control pill cannot use Seasonale. But they can talk to their doctor to see if they can use the pill in a new way to take away this woman's curse."

Manufactured by Barr Laboratories in Pomona, N.Y., the pill could be available as early as the fall of 2003.