Norplant blamed for birth defect

Southeast couple on crusade to warn others; maker of birth control implant disputes claim

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2000

When Kristina Jackson's birth control failed, her daughter Jo Lynn paid the price.

Jo Lynn was conceived and grew for five months while Norplant birth control implants released steady doses of the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel into her mother's bloodstream.

Her parents believe that's why Jo Lynn was born with one kidney, two uteruses and no anus or vagina. She also has club foot and spina bifida. The 3-year-old returned from her 22nd surgery earlier this month. (in mid-October.)

"With that safe five-year form of birth control we now have over a million-dollar baby and we're still fighting the system," said her father, Jerry Jackson. He's on a one-man crusade to warn women of the risks of Norplant.

Norplant makers say the device is completely safe, though not infallible.

"Oh sure, it isn't 100 percent effective," said Audrey Ashby, spokeswoman for Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, the makers of Norplant.

Though Norplant is more effective than any other existing contraceptive at preventing pregnancy, about 3.9 percent of the women who use it for five years will get pregnant, Ashby said. However, Ashby said Norplant has not been connected to any birth defects.

But the Jacksons are pretty sure Jo Lynn's deformities were related to the Norplant. They can't think of any other cause. Nobody else in their extended family has experienced birth defects and the Jacksons avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Living in Point Baker, on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island, they breathe clean air and drink pure rainwater.

Happy with their two daughters, Jerry and Kristina Jackson decided not to have any more children in 1995. There wasn't room or money for a larger family. They were still building their home three miles by water from Point Baker. Commercial fishing brought in only enough to support the family of four.

Kristina went to Ketchikan to have her tubes tied in 1994, but the public health nurse said Medicaid wouldn't cover the operation. Instead, Kristina was offered Norplant, a set of six capsules inserted into the arm that steadily release levonorgestrel, the same hormone used in many oral contraceptives. The nurse gave Kristina a chart showing all the forms of birth control in order of effectiveness. At the top was Norplant.

"It said how many chances out of a hundred that it could fail and the Norplant was one of 400, so I assumed that in three years there was no way," Kristina said.

The Norplant was supposed to last for five years. For the first two-and-a-half years it worked fine, but in January 1997 Kristina began to feel sick. She ignored her flu-like symptoms and weight gain until May. Loss of menstruation was a side-effect of Norplant, so she ignored that, too.

"I thought I had the flu and I couldn't shake it," she said.

Watching "Jaws" one May night with her two other daughters, Kristina felt a strange lump in her abdomen.

"I was watching TV with the kids and I was laying on my stomach and it was really hard, so I realized something was going on," Kristina said.

She worried it might be a tumor, since pregnancy would be unlikely, but ordered a home pregnancy kit. When it came, the results were positive.

Still in disbelief, she ordered another pregnancy test the next week. It also gave a positive result.

"I took it upstairs to Jerry and said 'Um, we have something to talk about.' He said, 'No, no way, There's no way this could happen,'" Kristina said.

When Kristina saw the doctor a week later, she was already five months pregnant. They took the Norplant out right away, then sent her to Seattle for further tests. An ultrasound showed the fetus had curvature of the spine and club foot, but an amniocentesis showed normal cell growth. After a brief debate over whether to abort, she and Jerry decided no. This child had already beat one-in-400 odds to be conceived. They would let her be born.

"Then at birth we found out we had a whole different can of worms to deal with," Jerry said.

Jackson was at sea when Kristina went into labor Sept. 23. She was flown to Seattle and delivered by Caesarean section at Swedish Hospital. Two days later the doctors released Kristina, but not her baby. Kristina stayed in hostels while Jo Lynn went through her first few surgeries. Finally the family had to get an apartment in Bremerton, near their daughter's specialists.

They had to sell their fishing permit and boat to pay the medical bills as they battled Alaska officials to keep their benefits. Finally the surgeries and medical checkups slowed and a year ago the Jacksons were able to return home.

Jo Lynn and Jerry still fly to Seattle frequently to see her specialists. She urinates out of a small slit in her belly.

Jerry's had surgery too, a vasectomy, so Kristina will never have to rely on birth control again. Last month they retained a lawyer, David Graham of Sitka.

"It is a little bit of a Goliath battle-type thing, but if we can make it work we will," Graham said of the case he plans to file against Norplant. "The law is kind of complicated, especially with these kind of subjects. I wouldn't be pursuing it unless I thought we had a shot."

Graham found the Norplant implants on a list of chemicals known to cause reproductive toxicity kept by the state of California.

Informing women of Norplant's risks has become Jerry's crusade. He's studied the origins and development of the device, which is predominantly used in Indonesia and other countries by governments trying to stem population growth. He's contacted all Alaska's state and congressional lawmakers, trying to convince the state to give women more complete warnings when counseling them about birth control. Alaska Medicaid bought Norplant for 45 women last year.

With the recall of some Norplants in October, Jerry has redoubled his efforts. Though he dotes on his daughter, he doesn't want another child born like her.

"There are people at risk of pregnancies that ... will result in birth defects and no one is willing to say that except me," Jerry said. "Maybe there's one, maybe there's four Norplant babies, but one is way too many."

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