The Weekly Pulse: Birth Control Users Question J&J Vaccine Pause; Biden Reverses Domestic Gag Rule

For The Weekly Pulse (a revisit of an old Ms. column!), we’ve scoured the most trusted journalistic sources—and, of course, our Twitter feeds—to bring you this week’s most important news stories related to health and wellness.

This week, updates on the pandemic as cases rise worldwide; birth control users question the FDA pause on distribution of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine; the Biden administration bolsters reproductive health by lifting medication abortion restrictions and undoing the domestic gag rule; and more.

Birth Control Users Question Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause—For Good Reason!

+ On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it’s pausing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “out of an abundance of caution” as it investigates six cases of women who developed blood clots after being vaccinated. On Wednesday, two more patients developed blood clots after receiving the vaccine. Of the eight cases, seven of them had blood clots in the brain, known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. Currently, no evidence links the blood clots to the vaccine. Nearly seven million Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been administered in the United States so far. 

Individuals on social media sounded off about their frustration over vaccine pause and uproar over just six cases of blood clots, while oral contraceptives—which have numerous side effects including headaches, migraines, nausea, sore breasts, changes in menstruation, spotting and of course two types of blood clots (deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms)—are routinely used by menstruating people without much consideration. 

After the comparison took off on Twitter, media outlets were quick to clarify: The type of clots seen in the vaccination cases have a different cause and treatment than those caused by birth control. But headlines like “Don’t Compare Blood Clots After the Johnson and Johnson Vaccine to Birth Control Risk” and “Here’s Why You Can’t Compare The Extremely Rare J&J Vaccine Blood Clots To Ones Linked To Birth Control” miss the larger point people are making: Menstruating people are expected to take on severe health risks in our everyday lives in a way that non-menstruating people are and have never been expected to.

While the initial comparison between the vaccine and hormonal birth control isn’t perfect, it demonstrates our society’s willingness to let menstruating people’s (oftentimes women’s) pain go “ignored, unresearched [and] underfunded,” Maya Schenwar wrote for Ms.

Millions of women in the United States have been using oral contraceptives (and experiencing its side effects) since the FDA first approved it in 1960. However, male hormonal birth control has yet to be fully developed—in spite of several promising research studies. For example, in one study of hormonal contraceptive for males, researchers attempted to reduce sperm production by injecting men with a mixture of two hormones, norethisterone enanthate and testosterone undecanoate. Unfortunately, the study was terminated after an independent review board concluded the, “risks to the study participants outweighed the potential benefits,” following participants’ reports of “mood changes, depression, pain at the injection site, and increased libido.” (Sound familiar?)

Even so, the researchers had enough data to conclude the injections “led to near-complete and reversible suppression of spermatogenesis.” Despite this study and others, there is still a lack of investment in researching male birth control due to a lack of societal buy-in, as well as the assumption made by the pharmaceutical industry that the market for these products isn’t large enough. 

The debacle over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine shows, as Twitter user Emily Dagger put it, blood clots “are apparently super dangerous when men might get them.” According to the FDA, three to nine women out of 10,000 will develop a blood clot during the first year of taking birth control pills; yet, we are seeing a media frenzy over approximately one in one million cases of a blood clot after vaccination. 

To top it all off, scientists say the risk of developing a blood clot in the brain due to COVID-19 is much higher than the possible risk presented by vaccination. One study (yet to be peer-reviewed) found the risk of developing a blood clot in the brain was 95 times higher among COVID-19 patients than in the general population. The general consensus among public health experts remains the same: For most of the population, the benefit of protection against COVID-19 offered by vaccination highly outweighs the risk of any adverse side effects. 

To make matters worse, public health experts fear the FDA’s pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may contribute to vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. and will further delay vaccine rollout to underserved communities across the globe. 

Further COVID-19 Developments: Cases Rising Worldwide + Calls Not to Patent COVID Vaccine

  • Coronavirus cases are rising in the majority of U.S. states, even as the vaccine rollout continues. Michigan is currently experiencing one of its worst outbreaks since the pandemic started. So far, only about one in five Americans are fully vaccinated. 

  • In an open letter, more than 170 Former Heads of State and Nobel Laureates called on President Biden to issue a “temporary waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules during the COVID-19 pandemic” in order to allow vaccine technology to be freely shared. Doing so would “save lives and advance us towards global herd immunity,” according to the statement. 

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Repro Rundown: Biden Bolsters Reproductive Health

+ The Biden administration began undoing a Trump-era ban on clinics referring patients for abortion—a domestic “gag rule” for health care providers. The ban also notoriously drove Planned Parenthood from the Title X Federal Family Planning Program and created new issues for those trying to obtain contraceptives.

The Biden administration estimates that as a result of the Trump administration’s policy changes, Title X “serves about 1.5 million fewer [people] each year, a 37 percent reduction from the average caseload from 2016-18.” The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the policies “may have let do up to 180,000 unintended pregnancies.”

“Ultimately, continued enforcement of the 2019 rule raises the possibility of a two-tiered health care system in which those with insurance and full access to health care receive full medical information and referrals, while low-income populations with fewer opportunities for care are relegated to inferior access,” HHS said in a statement. “This situation creates a widespread public health concern.”

+ The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has lifted restrictions on sending medication abortion pills via mail during the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock cited analysis from the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, noting that allowing mifepristone to be obtained without an in-person visit will prevent the spread of the virus.

+ A Kansas state court blocked the state’s ban on dilation and evacuation (D&E), a standard method of abortion after 14-15 weeks of pregnancy. In the ruling, Judge Teresa Watson said banning D&E “is not a narrowly tailored solution to the compelling state interest Defendants seek to address because, according to the evidence before the court, it would leave no alternative for second trimester abortions other than more complicated, less reliable, less tested and high-risk procedures.” 

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, praised the decision:

“The Kansas Supreme Court was loud and clear in 2019: Abortion is protected as a fundamental right under the Kansas state constitution. Today’s decision reaffirms that ruling and ensures that Kansans have access to the best abortion care. This ban made it a crime for doctors to use their best medical judgment. This is not about medicine; it’s purely political.” 

+ The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly ruled to uphold an Ohio law that prohibits doctors from performing abortions based on a fetal diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

+ A Nebraska corrections official has resigned from his position after superiors attempted to block a recently admitted incarcerated woman from obtaining an abortion. Hayden Thomas, former disability coordinator at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, is bringing attention to growing tensions over health care access for incarcerated people and the illegal, immoral act of denying someone an abortion. In his powerful resignation letter, Thomas told superiors:

“Your ill-thought decision has violated the special trust that the public has placed in our organization and has brought shame to the very notion of public service.”

+ Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed a bill that would allow some nurses to perform abortions. “This act will enable people who desperately need reproductive health care services to receive health care from very high quality health care providers, including advanced practice registered nurses, where they need it, when they need it, and … in their own communities,” Laura Reichardt, the director of the Hawaii State Center for Nursing, said during a bill signing ceremony.

+ The reproductive years for those with uteruses has increased from age 35 to 37.1, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

+ For the sixth year in a row, reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the United States hit “all-time high,” reports the CDC.

According to the report, the country has seen a nearly 20 percent increase in chlamydia cases since 2015, totaling over 1.8 million in 2019. Gonorrhea cases have increased by more than 50 percent since 2015 with over 616,000 cases in 2019. Additionally, there were nearly 130,000 cases of syphilis in 2019, an increase of over 70 percent since 2015.

About and

Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.
Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.