Women across the UK have been facing catastrophic contraceptive and hormonal replacement therapy shortages for the past few years. Perhaps this is the first time you’re hearing about this? After all, reproductive health issues are so often relegated to the sidelines. But this is a scandal that should shock and anger all of us, and should see us bellowing from the rooftops with rage.
Access to hormones isn’t an optional luxury – for many it’s a lifeline, and one women have fought tooth and nail for. And not just for women – contraceptive freedom affects men’s lives too. How many men have a female family member who relies on hormones to function? Or perhaps a partner who is facilitating their own reproductive choices by taking them?
Some women have been forced into making drastic changes to their contraceptive or hormonal regime in the face of a complete lack of communication from the Department of Health over the shortages. Not only is that disruptive, but women having to take medical decisions into their own hands to fill the gaps that should be held by medical professionals is dangerous. Some have been rationing HRT, terrified they will run out, and unsure of when they will be able to get hold of their prescription again. Others have had to stop using their preferred contraceptive altogether because they are unable to get hold of it – and bearing the full force of the consequences that come with that.
What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Contraception is contraception, after all. But not all pills and HRT are made equal. Sometimes it takes years to find the right one that works for your body, and months more to settle into a routine. Changing the dose or the brand can have devastating side effects, including mood changes and bleeding. At a time when women’s reproductive rights are being slowly eroded around the world, forcing women into making drastic changes to their contraceptive regime through unexplained shortages should worry us all.
Unsurprisingly, the shortage is “causing chaos”, according to leading sexual health experts, who have written to ministers to warn them of an increase in unplanned pregnancies and abortions as a result, and urging them to take action. We know the pill is rooted in sexual liberation for women. It’s about choice – and seeing women as valued, autonomous members of society with agency over sexual desire and pregnancy, and it’s imperative these hard won freedoms are defended.
But hormones aren’t just used for contraception. I have had a chemical menopause on two occasions to treat my endometriosis, so I know just how important HRT can be for some who experience life-changing side effects from the lack of oestrogen: depression, insomnia, night sweats, vaginal atrophy, the list goes on. HRT can be the difference between functioning in society or not – between losing your identity as a person, or retaining your sense of self. And not just for menopausal women, transgender women rely on HRT too. Women with reproductive diseases like endometriosis or polycystic ovaries are routinely prescribed the pill to help with the excruciating symptoms. Those with premenstrual dysphoric disorder often use hormonal contraceptives to keep debilitating depression around their menstrual cycle at bay. Vulnerable women involved in sex work or trapped in abusive situations rely on long-term contraception, like the injection.
This latest shortage is a reminder of just how easily women’s reproductive rights can be snatched away, through negligence, indifference or both. And that should scare us. The British Menopause Society, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have now written to health secretary Matt Hancock, calling for a new working group to tackle the problem. But we need to go one step further than just ensuring this doesn’t happen again. We need to safeguard women’s right to choose and we can start with overhauling how contraception is prescribed. Short supplies of contraception should be available to purchase at affordable prices from pharmacies – women shouldn’t have to wait weeks for a GP appointment to discuss their hormones. Information about medication shortages should be transmitted to those patients who use them as soon as it becomes available – women shouldn’t be going to pharmacies to fill their prescription, only to be told it isn’t in stock and they don’t know when it will be back.
Above all, the government must recognise the very real consequences these supply shortages are having on women’s lives and take measures to fix it – and fast. If women’s rights are truly a priority for this government, now is the time to speak up.
Lucy Pasha-Robinson is opinion editor for HuffPost UK.