(WOMENSENEWS)–Asserting that America is in the grip of an "epidemic" of avoidable hysterectomies, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney has promised to study the feasibility of legally requiring doctors to tell women about the life-changing impact of the surgery.
Maloney, a Democrat from Manhattan, made the pledge recently at the 28th annual conference of HERS, a foundation based in Bala Cynwyd, Penn., dedicated to reducing the number of hysterectomies.
"Ninety percent of hysterectomy patients who opt for the surgery have non-cancerous, non-life-threatening ailments for which there are alternative, less invasive procedures," Maloney told the audience. "Where is the outrage?"
A spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the College doesn’t collect statistics on the surgery or why it’s done, "so I can’t check-confirm the 90 percent figure," she said. The College does not support mandating or legislating informed consent for any condition, the spokesperson said.
About 600,000 American women undergo hysterectomies every year. Rarely do they hear anything from their doctors about adverse effects other than the inability to have more children, said Nora Coffey, founder of HERS, during an interview.
Coffey started the foundation 28 years ago to educate women about the effects of losing their reproductive and sex organs and to give women a place to share stories about the after-effects of surgery. The organization has created a video explaining how and why many women suffer a loss of libido, urinary incontinence and a host of other debilitating and painful health problems when their uteruses–and often their ovaries as well–are removed.
The foundation is championing a law that would require doctors to show its video to women 48 hours before they consent to the surgery.
Maloney said that before she introduces such legislation, she will ask for a study by the U.S. General Accountability Office, GAO, and gather expert advice. Maloney herself thought better about having a hysterectomy after friends who are women’s health advocates talked her out of it.
So far, no law requiring video consent has been introduced in any state. In January, the Indiana legislature held a hearing on an informed consent bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Borders, a Republican, whose wife underwent a hysterectomy and removal of her ovaries about four years ago. "It destroyed my wife’s life and a lot of mine, too," said Borders, who spoke at the April conference.
He said that after the surgery he had become "desperate" to understand why his wife had lost interest in sex. After connecting with the HERS Foundation, he says he concluded that his wife had been "lied to" about her need for the surgery and decided to introduce legislation.
The Indiana legislature held a hearing on Borders’ bill in January, but no vote was taken. The bill would have required that women be told in writing "all of the ramifications of hysterectomy," he said. Now Borders is hoping a special legislative summer committee will study the issue and write a bill requiring a video.
Women at the conference said their doctors told them they no longer needed their uteruses and ovaries after completing their families and justified taking out healthy ovaries to lower their risk of ovarian cancer. However, ovarian removal raises their risk of heart attack and osteoporosis, according to a 2005 article in the journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The article notes that removal of the uterus alone reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by 40 percent, and that women 40 to 44 who lose their ovaries face double the risk of heart attack. The article’s conclusion is that "at no age is there a clear benefit" from removal of healthy ovaries. About half the women who have hysterectomies every year–300,000–lose their ovaries at the same time.
Frances Cerra Whittelsey is an independent journalist from Huntington, N.Y., who is researching a book on avoidable hysterectomies. She blogs at http://TheEqualizerFCW.blogspot.com.
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