(WOMENSENEWS)--Forty years ago I lauded the introduction of the birth control pill.
At that point I saw the Pill as a way for women to gain crucial control over their family planning and attain the time and energy for life pursuits beyond labor, delivery and all the joys of child care.
Today I stand with a growing number of academicians, researchers, educators and activists who are concerned about extending synthetic contraceptive use to do away with normal menstruation.
The marketing of such drugs upon unsuspecting women has been going on for more than 15 years.
Norplant arrived in 1990; it was six silicone rods inserted into the skin of a woman's arm effective for up to five years. In 2002 it was quietly taken off the market in the United States because of complaints of menstrual irregularities, headaches and nausea, scarring from botched insertions and removals which led to hundreds of lawsuits. Norplant is still widely used in other countries.
Then came Depo Provera in 1998: an injection suppressing the period for three months.
Seasonale arrived in 2003, reducing women's periods to four times a year. Lybrel was introduced in 2006, eliminating a woman's period for up to a year.
On July 18 the Food and Drug Administration approved yet another form of contraception that will eliminate the menstrual cycle for three years.
Implanon is a medical polymer single rod the size of a matchstick that can be implanted under the skin of a woman's upper inner arm where it secretes synthetic hormones that will suppress the production of natural hormones for up to three years, depending on body weight. Implanon's maker, Organon International, is beginning to train doctors to administer it this month.
Side Effects and Significance
Organon states that this product has been successfully tested on 250 million women in 30 countries for the past eight years without significant side effects.
So why worry?
Well, first there is the track record on this kind of claim to consider.
Some of you may remember, for instance, that side effects reported by Puerto Rican women in the 1960s were dismissed as "psychosomatic" in the rush to get the first birth control pill on the U.S. market.
Then came 100 premature deaths linked to the Pill, Senate hearings and Barbara Seaman's groundbreaking 1969 book "A Doctor's Case Against the Pill" about the dangerous side effects. Not until 1988, however, did drug companies, at the FDA's urging, remove the original high-dose oral contraceptives from the market. Also, what exactly is a "significant" side effect?
Implanon's disclaimer says "the most common side effect is changes in bleeding pattern ranging from amenorrhea (lack of a period) to spotting (chemically controlled bleed, not a natural bleed) and-or irregular or prolonged bleeding."
It appears that "significant" side effects encountered by women are dismissed as "insignificant" by the industry.
Currently over 100 million women worldwide use oral contraceptives, but there are no studies on how the elimination of the menstrual cycle for an extended length of time will affect our reproductive system as well as our health.
Some have argued that women will benefit medically from fewer menstrual cycles. The real question is, can that response be safely produced with artificial suppression?
Remember Infant Formula?
Please remember how many mothers believed the message that formula-makers spread about synthetic milk being better than natural milk. That position was reversed earlier this year, angering many women who felt deceived. Common sense should have told us that natural was better.
And did anyone catch what recently happened with hormone replacement therapy 30 years after it was introduced to the market? In July 2002 the National Women's Health Institute halted the first independent study of HRT because the risks to a woman's health far outweighed the benefits.
Nonetheless, the FDA is blithely giving the green light to medications that drastically alter women's biology and have undergone only limited testing periods.
There are some who argue that synthetic contraceptive use decreases the incidence of breast cancer. However, the facts point out otherwise. Ten years ago we were frightened by the fact that 1 in 9 women would develop breast cancer. Today we grimly accept the fact that one person is diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes.
The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research was founded in 1977 by a multidisciplinary group of women who were pioneers in understanding the importance of menstrual cycle research to women's health. Members, including myself, form an interdisciplinary group of international researchers, health care providers, policy makers and students who share an interest in women's lives and health needs as they are related to the menstrual cycle.
In 2003, the society issued its position statement. "While we recognize that menstrual suppression may be a useful option for women with severe menstrual cycle problems such as endometriosis, we do not believe that continuous oral contraceptive use should be prescribed to all menstruating women out of a rejection of a normal, healthy menstrual cycle."
More Research Required
Put simply, more research is needed before women can make informed decisions regarding menstrual suppression.
Dr. Susan Rako, author of "No More Periods? The Blessings of the Curse," reissued this year after an earlier version in 2003, was one of the first to sound the alarm.
"Manipulating women's hormonal chemistry for the purpose of menstrual suppression threatens to be the largest uncontrolled experiment in the history of medical science," she wrote.
I believe the menstrual cycle is the foundation of women's being. It gives us our ability to create and nourish life. It is a sacred connection that we can trace back to women long, long ago who attained goddess stature for their life-giving powers.
I am not the first to think or say this.
"For woman, with her inexplicable moon rhythms and power of creating new life, was the most sacred mystery of the tribe," Rosalind Miles wrote in her 1988 book, "The Women's History of the World."
To suppress this cycle is to suppress our fundamental nature and pay the pharmaceutical companies in the process.
Instead of viewing each body system as a separate entity, recent research about creating optimal health points to the interrelated functioning of all of the systems in the body. Is it possible that in suppressing one system others may also be suppressed?
Women have been so overwhelmed with negative messages about the inconvienence of menstruation we are willing to take a synthetic chemical cocktail to eliminate the monthly cycle, the foundation of our womanhood.
Not only do women need to know the risks associated with the menstrual suppression experiment, they need to realize that we are the experiment.
Leslie Botha, educator, author, publisher and radio show host, received the first annual Edward R. Dewey Award this year for work in pioneering research on how women's hormonal fluctuations affect their behaviors.
For more information:
Holy Hormones Honey! The Greatest Story Never Told:
Society for Menstrual Cycle Research:
Period, the Movie:
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