WHAT DOES IT MEAN when tens of thousands of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Bayer, brought against them over contraceptives such as Yasmin and NuvaRing, are settled out of court? Many of us might presume that the evidence brought forward by the plaintiffs was lacking, that the pills and devices were not proven to be the cause of the serious injuries and deaths cited. We might think that it means we no longer have to worry about the risks of these forms of birth control. We might assume that only those in so-called high-risk groups – the older, the heavier, smokers – should be concerned. What it actually means is that those pharmaceutical companies get away with murder.
Large sums of money are offered to each plaintiff, money many may badly need if they are dealing with medical and hospital bills, lost income, and permanent disability, and as long as 95% of those with claims take that money then it is given to everyone. What happens if you are in the position to refuse the money, feeling that the caveat that comes along with it — allowing the pharmaceutical company to disavow any responsibility for what has happened to the women who used their product — is not acceptable to you? Your lawyer will stop representing you and your family and drop the case, because they stood to benefit from the settlement money. Those who take the settlement money will be made to sign a gag order ensuring they will not be able to speak with the media about the specifics of their case. Those left, the 5%, must fight against the misconception that the products are still on the market because they are perfectly safe. What happens to them?
Some, like the Langharts, who were profiled in a Vanity Fair feature on the blood clot risks and consequences of NuvaRing and Yasmin earlier this year, take to activism. They attend pharmaceutical conferences and confront marketing representatives, they talk to any and all media that will listen, and they reach out to other victims and families to collaborate on raising awareness of the dangers of these birth control methods. The 5%, in the case of NuvaRing, have created a website to share research that supports the claim that the device holds a high risk of causing blood clots. NuvaRingTruth.com is the result of months of wading through the information available and processing this to provide advice to those looking into their contraceptive choices.
When we talk about the relative risks of drugs, about the rarity of one possible side effect or another, we tend to forget that these calculations always include women who are seriously injured, who have died. And for every incident of injury or death that is reported that becomes part of the official statistics, there are many more that go unreported either because the person or family is not aware of the process of reporting to the FDA or because the connection is not made between the drug or device and the consequence. Women are still suffering serious injuries and women are still dying as the result of drugs and devices still on the market. Doctors are not even discussing known risks, because they assume it won’t be their patients that will be affected.
There are many women’s stories on NuvaRingTruth.com, one of which is that of 29 year-old Tracey Wells, who experienced a blood clot while using NuvaRing and lost her peripheral vision as a consequence. She writes that she chose not to accept the settlement money from Merck and she explains why: “If you knew officials claim the type of stroke you had doesn’t ‘support a causal link’ to NuvaRing, but the first thing the ER doctors asked you to do when they identified your stroke was to remove your NuvaRing, would you settle? If all official medical reports point directly to NuvaRing, but the courts don’t care, would you settle? If the after-insurance amount in medical bills was more than the payout, would you settle? If you knew that other women died because of NuvaRing, would you settle?”
The Langharts have also created a non-profit organization in memory of their daughter Erika, who died at 24 years old from multiple pulmonary embolisms as a result of using NuvaRing. Through “Informed Choice For AmErika,” they hope to make all women aware of the risks of hormonal birth control methods and the signs of a developing blood clot, provide information on alternatives for contraception, as well as push to see that pharmaceutical companies and the FDA are held accountable for ushering risky drugs on to the market. Just this last month they sent the information, research, and stories they have gathered to members of Congress in the hope of drawing attention back to high-risk hormonal contraceptives.
The young women that die, the families left behind, those permanently disabled by their choice of birth control — these are the people sidelined by the political debate on contraception in the US. Their stories are inconvenient to those pushing for increased access, who must play up the safety of what is available to women. We don’t want to deal with the fact that what we are fighting for the right to use has left some women fighting for their lives. Every one of their deaths is entirely unnecessary and many more women’s lives could be saved by those left behind getting heard.