The Current

No need to bleed: Why U.K. women are outraged to learn they can skip their period

New guidelines from British health officials say there's no need to take a break from oral contraceptives in order to menstruate. So why are birth control pills made and sold so that you do?

Doctors divided on continuous contraception, while U.K. guidelines say it's safe

A pill a day can keep your period away, and new research from the U.K. suggests it's safe for women to do so. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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Since Rosie Mullender started taking continuous, back-to-back birth control pills in order to skip her period, she's noticed "countless" benefits.

"You don't get mood swings, headaches, you don't get breakouts if that's something you suffer. You save a lot of money in sanitary protection, and it's better for the environment," the British freelance writer told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

In the 10 years she's been doing it, she said she has "not been worried about getting pregnant ... and I've just found it so freeing."

But Mullender says other women apparently weren't aware that there's no need to bleed — and they're outraged to learn the news. New guidelines issued this month in the U.K. suggested women can safely take fewer, or no, seven-day breaks from the pill. Those breaks were intended to allow women to menstruate.

Mullender wrote an article for Glamour about the resulting social media uproar and said women feel duped.

Rosie Mullender is a freelance writer in the U.K. (Submitted by Rosie Mullender)

"Some of them … feel they've been effectively lied to for the last 60 years, because it's not something that we're told when we go on the pill," said Mullender, although she added different GPs have advised her she could skip her monthly flow.

What's also enraged women are claims the seven-day break was conceived by a man who helped develop the pill, in an attempt to gain the Pope's endorsement.

"John Rock, back in the 50s, thought that the break made the pill feel more natural," said Mullender. "And the idea just seems to have stuck."

British freelance writer Rosie Mullender explains how the seven-day break women get for their period when taking birth control pills is connected to the Pope. 0:47

Not news to Canadian women

In Canada, however, the idea of foregoing unwanted periods isn't new. Women and doctors have been hacking birth control pills for about a decade.

It started as a way to help people manage medical conditions, such as endometriosis, chronic pelvic pain, headaches and seizures, said Dr. Melissa Mirosh, an obstetrician gynecologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, who co-authored Canadian guidelines on the issue.

"For a lot of people, this works pretty well," she said. Now, women are branching out and skipping periods for pleasure — to have bleed-free vacations, or during big sports competitions.

So, why are birth control pills still sold in 21- or 28-day packs, you ask?

"They just haven't gotten around to sticking three of them in one box and calling it extended use," said Mirosh, who explained that most products on the market can be used in an extended fashion.

'A cavalier approach'

Not all doctors agree with continuous contraception though.

"I think it's a rather cavalier approach to a very natural process," said Dr. Jerilynn Prior, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Jerilynn Prior is a professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of British Columbia. She's skeptical of continuously taking birth control pills to avoid menstruation. (University of British Columbia)

She worries about people using birth control pills with high doses of hormones, and argued there are better choices for contraception, such as IUDs. She added the long-term effects of continuous contraception is still unknown.

"We haven't done the studies," Prior said.

Mirosh argued that the dosage of hormones in birth control pills these days are "dropping dramatically," but she agrees not all methods of contraception are right for everyone.

Women should talk to their doctor about what's best for them, she said.

"There's a lot of women who feel miserable when they have their period," said Mirosh.

"I think they should have the option to make themselves more likely to attend work, less likely to miss school, more likely to keep going with their other activities if they take a medication to help with their menstrual symptoms." 

"I think it's about offering choice."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann and Danielle Carr.

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