So last week I was reading about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval of Lybrel, a contraceptive drug purported to suppress periods, and about the raging debate over menstrual suppression, which has been a hot topic for a while now.
Lybrel, which hasn't been approved in Canada, is one of several drugs that can reportedly stem the tide. Some say it may not be the most effective suppressant and may allow plenty of spotting and irregular bleeding, so it's actually funny that this particular pill is gettting so much ink.
When I read the reports, I thought, "Great! Sign me up,' and not for the first time either. I hate menstruating. I'm not one of those people who gets some sort of womanly pride or satisfaction out of it. I fucking hate it . And we do so damn much of it. I'm doing it right now, as a matter of fact.
But then I changed my mind, because the idea of stopping the monthly flow sounds pretty scary when you think about it. So, nah. Forget it.
Some say there's no need for women to bleed as much as we do and that getting all these periods is unhealthy. Others believe stopping our periods is potentially dangerous.
To top it off, what are the social implications of halting menstruation? It wasn't that long ago that libbers had to fight for the right to even mention bleeding from the gash without causing fits of fainting spells.
The debate rages on.
What the experts say
"If menstruation is problematic, the benefits of menstrual suppression might outweigh the risks. But we don't know what the risks are. There are no long-term studies and far too many examples of medications that have been pulled from shelves. We don't know what stopping menstruation does. We don't even fully understand what menstruation does. We do know it's linked to the health of the whole body and hormonal processes. Hormonal fluctuations have an impact on bone development. Teenaged girls may be particularly susceptible to problems with menstrual suppression. I fear it will be a large experiment."
KATHLEEN O'GRADY, director of communications, Canadian Women's Health Care Network, Ottawa
"There is a long history of ill ease with women's bodies. In the 20th and 21st centuries, pharmaceutical companies, advertisers and manufacturers have used women's functions to make money by promoting a hygiene ethic: the idea that women's periods are dirty and have to be sanitized. These pills are another example of medicalizing and marginalizing women because our body functions are considered inappropriate for society. Suppressing menstruation may be beneficial for women who have severe pain caused by such conditions as dysmenorrhoea or endometriosis. But such cases are rare. What I find remarkable is that research money is not moving in the direction of discovering why these conditions exist."
CHRISTABELLE SETHNA, associate professor, Institute of Women's Studies and faculty of health sciences, University of Ottawa
"For women not seeking pregnancy, there is no reason menstruation is necessary. Estrogen is needed for healthy bones, so any suppression should be evaluated as to estrogen effects. Nature did not plan for women to experience 13 menstrual cycles year after year, because women would typically have a birth every few years. Premenopausal women have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than men of a similar age, and this may possibly be due to the low iron and red cell concentration in women because of menstruation. The blood is less viscous, and iron could be interacting with lipids. This is an unproven theory, but there is some literature on the topic. However, you don't have to have blood on a menstrual pad every month to keep a [healthy low] level of iron. Women could donate blood."
LESLIE MILLER, clinical associate professor, Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington, Seattle
"Menstruation is the outward sign of an inward hormonal process. We don't know if removing the pill-free interval of the birth control pill cycle [the way most menstruation is stopped] is going to have side effects. Some concerns would be stroke, deep vein thrombosis and heart attack. Researchers haven't looked at the impact on bone development or breast tissue in teenagers. From a social perspective, menstrual suppression adds to the idea that we should be able to turn off functions we don't want, as if we were machines. I wouldn't be surprised if we see an increase in hysterectomies for heavy bleeding. The [idea of stopping menses] just adds to our culture's distaste for menstruation."
CHRISTINE L. HITCHCOCK, research associate, Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research, department of medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver