by Jan Baughman
(Swans - June 5, 2006) It is hard to imagine a more confusing time to be female than in 21st century America. With the ever-increasing politicization of reproduction, the profit-motivated forces of the pharmaceutical and health care industries, and the media pressures to conform to standards of beauty and sexuality while opposing forces are increasing obesity and placing barriers on education, the fate of women today is falling into the hands of fundamentalist and out of those of the countless women who gave their lives in hard-fought battles for women's rights, reproductive choice, equality in the workplace, and the recognition of the legitimacy of our intellect. A chilling image that personifies this movement is that of a smiling George W. Bush, surrounded by 9 smiling white male politicians and flanked by American flags, as the president signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. For their most recent grand idea, see Alma Hromic's exposé of the Center's for Disease Control campaign to define all females as walking wombs that must be prepared for potential pregnancy. Patriarchy is alive and well while the feminist movement continues its demise.
The competing forces of fundamentalism and profits crashed head on with the request by Barr Laboratories to make its approved prescription drug, Plan B, the so-called "morning after pill" for emergency contraception, available without a prescription. Plan B is not an abortifacient; it is taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex to prevent fertilization of an egg and, therefore, pregnancy. Though it was overwhelmingly recommended for approval as an over-the-counter drug by an independent advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA rejected its approval because of concern that young women, particularly those under 16, could use it safely without supervision. In fact, the acting director of the reviewing center at FDA, Steven Galson, stated that the rejection was his own decision (unilateral rulings are an uncommon practice), and he and other reviewers are on record expressing concerns about the drug's impact on teen sexual behavior -- the oversight and regulation of which does not, as of yet, fall under the FDA's jurisdiction. In the meantime, the FDA has stalled a decision; Dr. Susan Wood, director of the FDA's Office of Women's Health and Dr. Frank Davidoff, a member of the FDA's Nonprescription Drug Advisory Committee, resigned in protest; and the Center for Reproductive Rights' filed a lawsuit, currently in trial, against the FDA.
In the meantime, contraception manufacturers are creating less controversial new markets by redefining menstrual periods as an avoidable evil -- a 21st century illness, which can safely be eliminated by the use of their drugs. "Already, the Seasonale birth control pill limits periods to four a year. The first continuous-use birth control pill, Lybrel, likely will soon be on the U.S. market and drug companies are lining up other ways to limit or eliminate the period." It's no wonder that market research reveals that women could live without their period... "Still, surveys also show most women consider monthly periods normal. Small wonder: Girls learn early on that menstruation is a sign of fertility and femininity, making its onset an eagerly awaited rite of passage." Well, perhaps we don't all welcome a period as a potential for pregnancy -- perhaps we see it simply as normal biology.
Yet, there are increased risks associated with the "conveniences" of long-term birth control use -- heart attack, stroke, blood clots, among others. Women were also told by the pharmaceutical industry that they didn't have to suffer the hormonal inconveniences on the other end of the reproductive cycle, menopause. Estrogen replacement has been a billion-dollar market, with hormones to alleviate the symptoms of biological changes and medicate the transition, and the fringe benefits of protecting against osteoporosis and heart disease. Until a recent study, the Women's Health Initiative trial, revealed an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, blood clots, and dementia with combination estrogen-progestin therapy. Do we simply choose our poison, or heed the warning not to mess with Mother Nature?
Women's bodies have become defined as one evolving medical condition, with profitability at each step along the way. It would come as no surprise to see the re-emergence of Victorian-era hysteria as a common diagnosis of women's myriad "maladies." With a new anti-hysteria drug to follow, of course.
One rational fellow, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, sees reality quite clearly and objectively:
There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health -- including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would also venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.
While the U.S. puts more money toward fighting AIDS than any other country, it throws more than half of it to ineffective programs promoting abstinence, and shuns effective programs that promote condom use and prevent needle sharing. In other words, the funding of morality at the expense of the "sinners."
Perhaps in the 21st century we'll witness the end of Miss America pageants, the objectification of women as wombs, and the politicization of health, learning to embrace our hormones and not be controlled by the profits and testosterone of power. While women are now on a more equal education playing field and in some majors are surpassing men in terms of proportion earning degrees, we still fall 25% behind in pay. As our numbers grow in the legal and medical professions, perhaps the next generation will have the wherewithal to put their knowledge to power. Women activists would be better served directing their efforts -- and money -- to support girls' education rather than throwing it toward causes we all are continuing to lose.
"Decision on Plan B Called Very Unusual"
Marc Kaufman, The Washington Post, October 13, 2005
Ann Friedman, Mother Jones, November 29, 2005
"Menstruation Is Fast Becoming Optional"
Linda A. Johnson, Associated Press, May 21, 2006
"Empowering Women the Most Effective Development Tool, Annan Says"
February 28, 2005, UN News Centre
"Where AIDS Funding Should Go"
Dean Jamison and Nancy Padian, The Washington Post, Saturday, May 20, 2006
"Women Gaining on Men in Advanced Fields"
Ben Feller, Associated Press, June 1, 2006
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