Monday, November 9, 2009

Silent bodies

My guest blog for the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research was published this morning. The editor saw fit to give the piece the title, 'Are we addicted to the pill?'- drawing my attention to a line of thought through my writing here that I hadn't previously paid that much attention too - the thought that we, as individuals and collectively, are addicted to the pill, and that the pill has become so fundamental to the workings of the world, or at least the western world, that the issue of women taking it or not taking is now amazingly complex.

It would be fair to think that taking the pill was solely about avoiding pregnancy. After all, that's what it was invented for right? But we know that it is also prescribed for poly cystic ovaries syndrome, heavy bleeding, and acne - to name really only a few of the reasons I've heard doctors give. The papers this week have been full of the news that the pill might help women suffering with asthma. Most of these articles mentioned somewhere, in some way, that the pill is 'the most researched and safest medication' around.

Now, from what I know about the pill's impact on the body there's a good chance it increases the likelihood of developing allergies, or worsening allergies, due on its suppression of the immune system - however, I am happy to accept that it has been found that some forms of asthma can be helped by the pill. I'm not so happy that it is thought acceptable to treat this problem with a drug that shuts down the hormonal cycle and has such wide ranging effects on all bodily functions. Once you know something about how the pill works, prescribing it for anything - even its presumed main reason for being - seems very drastic. Like cutting someone's arm off because they have arthritis in their wrist.

The pill is often cited as giving protection against ovarian and endometrial cancers. This protection comes about because these organs are not functioning when a woman is taking the pill, and if they are not functioning they aren't alive to developing cancerous cells. I have also heard it said that the pill protects a woman's fertility. Again this is because her reproductive system is dormant and as such not open to certain problems. I won't deny the veracity of the first statement, although I would the second, but both come from an understanding of women's bodies which is worryingly negative. It is assumed women's reproductive system is intrinsically hazardous, dangerous, not to be trusted and only useful, or good, when creating a baby. This to me seems a little like saying living is dangerous, because it can result in death.

Alexandra Pope, co-author of The Pill: Are You Sure It's For You? calls the side effects of the pill "quality of life threatening." Many women take the pill, and ratio-wise, not that many of them die of pill-related blood clots. But, I believe many women suffer a poorer quality of life when taking the pill, and that the effect of this daily wear and tear on their well being, and their basic, necessary bodily functions such as metabolism and immunity, is serious. I have not died from taking the pill, but I have spent months feeling very unwell and unable to enjoy life, and many years feeling less than healthy. The twin ideas that women are naturally, as women, always sick and that women are inescapably emotionally erratic are ingrained in our minds with the same casual ease as our knowing how to eat a banana or use a knife. We think the way the pill can make us feel is normal, and that essentially, we don't deserve anything else.

Speaking of normal, my guest blog was proceeded by an interesting post from Moira Howes of Trent University. She discusses a statement made by Timothy Rowe, Head of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the University of British Columbia: "The pill keeps a woman's reproductive organ's quiet and healthy." Rowe argues that this 'quiet' term is unscientific and as such laden with social values and assumptions. It suggests that an active uterus is unhealthy, if a dormant one is healthy. She brings up an idea from the medical field that apparently has only come about recently - 'incessant ovulation' - a term which implies uninterrupted ovulation, as in not suppressed by the pill, is unhealthy. When the uterus does not contain a foetus it is seen as doing nothing at all.

Let's take another look at that edited list I've posted before of all the bodily systems effected vitally by the monthly hormone cycle:

Body temperature
Blood glucose regulation
Energy levels and sleep patterns
Thyroid and adrenal hormone production
Skin colour, texture
Memory and concentration
Brain wave patterns
Balance, fine motor coordination
Metabolism rate
Levels of adrenalin
Visual, auditory and olfactory acuity
Pain threshold
Concentrations of vitamins

Two women commented on my guest blog, both remarking that in either not wanting to take the pill, or in finding the pill made them unwell, they were considered by doctors, and friends, to be 'abnormal' or 'unusual.' I have spoken to doctors previously for interviews who have complained that much of the research done into the menstrual cycle uses the cycle of a pill-taking women as its basis, as though that were more normal than the cycle of a woman not taking the pill. When the pill is called 'the most researched medication in history' it has to be noted that the medical profession has a tendency to come from the point of view that modern women's cycles are not normal - they have too many periods, too few pregnancies - and it is far better to have a 'quiet' uterus.

I don't want to demonise doctors, and I don't actually blame them for all the times women try to talk about the pill's side effects or find out about alternatives and they don't help - they probably truly only know what they're told in medical school and they probably don't have time to do the sort of reading required to understand. It's important women take responsibility for themselves, in the most meaningful way, and for each other.

I've often heard people worry over the drugs given to those with mental disorders, and how they will have to take them forever, and have heard many stories of people who have tried to stop, reluctant to take a drug for their whole life. These drugs hold their own problems for sure, and stopping them is inadvisable for some and can have terrible consequences. Yet we are it seems entirely unconcerned that millions of women take the birth control pill until menopause. And we are, as a society, entirely opposed to having them stop taking it, even though the worst that can happen for most women is withdrawal symptoms, which if you are aware that's what they are, although nasty are bearable. It's a state-sponsored addiction...

- the basis of which is, as I have just read Naomi Wolf describe in The Beauty Myth, "the dread of lost control" - control over our own bodies, and control over us.

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