A drug company’s view of the ideal woman

Every time you turn around it seems someone has come up with a new drug or surgery to redesign women.

Weight loss pills, drugs to stave off ageing, cosmetic surgery, liposuction, botox. Women can’t just be themselves – there’s always someone who wants to intervene to “enhance” them – usually someone out to make money.

A new pill has been launched to eliminate a process usually seen as a healthy sign of a woman’s reproductive health: her monthly period.

The US Food and Drug Administration has just OK’d Lybrel – a name supposed to make us think of liberty – manufactured by Wyeth. It’s designed to get rid of periods completely. It’s also designed to increase Wyeth’s bottom line – Lybrel is expected to generate $US250 million in additional revenue to the company.

The announcement of the pill’s release has been welcomed by some here. New South wales Family Planning’s Edith Weisberg reckons it’s a great idea for Australian women.

Women in the US are being told they don’t have to feel “fat” and “messy” every month. You can picture the advertising – carefree girls in bikinis frolicking on a Malibu beach being chased by impossibly handsome men as an anonymous hand pours blue liquid (it’s never red) over a pair of white pants – “No unsightly leaks – ever!”, intones the voice over.

Teens are even told they’ll do better academically if they’re on the pill, and that their social lives will improve.

These unsupported claims are patronising and disrespectful.

The drug’s supporters say it’s “natural” and “healthy” for women not to have periods, even though there is no evidence to support this. The long-term safety of these pills is unknown and existing safety data frighteningly limited.

As health psychologist Paula S. Derry wrote in the British Medical Journal in May: “The long term safety of menstrual suppression cannot currently be determined with experimental data … Overall, the existing data are limited, and whether or not long term risks exist remains uncertain: this would require lengthy study … science involves logic and evidence, and the case against menstruation involves neither.”

Derry points out that lack of menstruation is normally an indicator of poor health.

“We do know that menstruation is what naturally occurs when women don’t become pregnant, and that a menstruating women is a healthy, probably fertile, woman – whereas unhealthy, malnourished, or massively stressed women are more likely to skip periods.”

Derry highlights the deliberate creation of an unnatural hormonal environment in a woman’s body.

“Menstrual suppression itself is unnatural; a drug chronically overrides the physiological changes associated with the menstrual cycle, thereby creating an underlying hormonal environment that is not found in nature. Ovulation, the normal outcome of a menstrual cycle, is prevented because the hormones underlying ovulation have been suppressed.”

Women should not be led astray about the supposed benefits of this pill. Unpredictable break-through bleeding can still happen – and continue for the same time as a regular period. Half the women in trials dropped out because of this problem.

There are implications for women when they can’t rely on a missed period as a sign of possible pregnancy. Young women may be pregnant and not know it. They might not get the medical attention they need or be as careful about their nutrition and health.

The lack of a period may also mask problems which missed periods can indicate. Young women with eating disorders can fail to ovulate, resulting in no periods. They may not be aware of how severe their condition has become, because it is hidden by the pill.

The promotion of menstrual suppression also sends a message to young women just entering puberty that a natural and healthy bodily function is negative and should be stopped.

Already many young women are badly affected by cultural messages about body image. Messages about a “need” to eliminate periods could contribute to making them feel more uncomfortable with their bodies.

“No periods” advertising could also encourage the pill’s take-up without full understanding of the potential risks and side-effects of pills containing artificial hormones. This happens now with the marketing of the regular pill as blessing girls with beautiful skin.

Existing hormonal pills have already been implicated in a number of health problems including cancer, strokes and blood clots, along with depression, decreased libido and weight gain. A woman using the new regime will take dozens more active hormone pills over the course of a year and no one knows how she might end up.

Young women need love, nurturing, healthy food, exercise, and the opportunity to develop and progress in ways that are affirming to them as unique women.

They don’t need to be chemically altered to fit into some profit-driven drug company’s view of the ideal woman.

This is an expanded version of an article first published in The Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph May 28, 2007.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra-based writer and researcher with a special interest in women’s health, new reproductive technologies and medical abuses of women. She is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief after Abortion and Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press). Melinda Tankard Reist is a director of Women’s Forum Australia and editor of Faking It which can be obtained from www.womensforumaustralia.org

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.