Menstruation Optional

After all the recent buzz about the new birth control pill Lybrel, which gets rid of the traditional “sugar pill” week and allows women to skip menstruating all together–the pill is finally on the shelves this month.

Karen Houppert has an Op-Ed about it at the NYTimes today, and she points out the interesting ways the menstruation as proof of inferiority has been used to certain groups advantage. She points out that when women were needed in the factories during the World Wars, they were told that having their period didn’t matter, and they should “buck up.” But when it comes to having a woman in the White House, its not uncommon to hear PMS and emotional instability thrown around like character flaws.

So we’ll see how Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Lybrel, decide to try and market their new pill. But in my own, non-biologist opinion, I have some immediate concerns about these new technologies:

  • All those synthetic hormones? I personally am wary of all hormonal birth control, I’m not sure if I believe that there are no negative side effects to them. I’ve also been told that when you introduce synthetic hormones into your body, your body doesn’t make any of its own hormones–so you might be subsisting at a level that is too high or too low for you, which can have side effects like bone loss. Also let’s remember the Hormone Replacement Therapy fiasco.
  • What about the good effects of the sloughing of the uterine lining each month? I think of it as rejuvenatory, allowing new and healthier cells to grow in its place. Could this have an impact on risk for uterine cancers?
  • Lastly, when I think of missing periods, or amenorrhea, I think of it being an indicator of something else wrong with the body–bad nutrition, stress, (or pregnancy). How can something that indicates a bodily imbalance be a good thing?

There could be a lot of other arguments about how great menstruating is, and how it connects us with mother earth, la pacha mama or the lunar calender. I’ll spare you all of those, and leave it at my concerns above.

All of this controversy reminded me of a great piece written by Gloria Steinem, called If Men Could Menstruate. Read it. While published in 1978, I think it has particular resonance today.

I’d love to hear what other doulas and midwives think about this new pill.

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4 thoughts on “Menstruation Optional

  1. Catie Mehl July 25, 2007 / 4:19 pm

    This bothers me to no end. I agree with you on the possible health impacts years later…especially uterine cancer. I once had a doula client whose husband was just starting residency. He had done his OB rotation with a doctor who would not prescribe hormonal birth control and strongly urged women to use NFP (not saying I agree with his approach) and this doctor had said there were studies that have been done that linked uterine cancer and other health issues with women not having a period. Sadly, I have yet to find any of these studies…maybe I’ll do one of my OB rotations with the same doc and I can talk with him about it then.

    And if medical professionals are going to say women are not meant to have the number of cycles that we do because our cycles stop during pregnancy and breastfeeding…then why the hell aren’t they pushing breastfeeding? Oh wait, I forgot, nobody makes any money when women breastfeed their babies.

  2. Pockysmama July 30, 2007 / 4:41 pm

    I would just like to know where the basis for your second point comes from. I have heard this repeatedly lately and I can’t understand why the true function of hormonal contraceptives is so misunderstood by a lot of women. Hormonal contraceptives thin the uterine lining making it an inhospital if not nearly impossible enviroment for a fertilized egg to implant itself thus preventing pregnancy. You are not building a lining while on hormonal contraceptives therefore there is no lining to shed or reason for your vagina to “cleanse” itself outside of normal washing. Even the “sugar” pill does not allow you to have a true period because you have no uterine lining built up and are only experiencing breakthrough spotting/bleeding because your hormone levels are decreasing.

  3. Nekole February 18, 2008 / 7:23 pm

    This is a very interesting topic to me on many levels. I did not start my period until nearly 19months after my daughter was born. The result for me was the realization of how affected I am every week of my cycle. I literaly feel like a different woman every week. When I took this realization to my Nurse Midwife her suggestion was that I should try and stop my cycles. She argued that while breastfeeding and moving states, the last thing I needed was to be dealing with my hormonal shifts every month (which often include at least a week of being quite tired). I left the office somewhat convinced that it was the reponsible thing to do but also feeling – wow I guess there is something wrong with me. Ultimately, I decided not to take the pill because it felt like some sort of degradation of myself. It felt like a solution that left no room for the acceptance of my being a woman. It left me with the impression that if I wanted to exist in this world, I would need to alter myself to fit. This felt mysogonistic and I ultimately decided to do without. I am however, left still feeling unclear of how to grapple with the reality of my changing weekly self. I have spoken to many other women about this and most of them have similar experiences with their cycles. They also tell me similar stories of ways to try and avoid the shifts. Is this not another way of not accepting all that we are as women? Is this not another way that we feel inadequate because of our sex. Where do we go from here? I want to embrace my womanhood but often feel so alone.

  4. L April 11, 2008 / 2:48 pm

    I wish you’d point to some studies that back up your claims or hesitations. The endometrium doesn’t slough off because it’s unhealthy- it sloughs off because the estrogen/progesterone levels aren’t high enough to maintain it. There’s nothing unhealthy about the endometrium that exits your uterus when you menstruate, and it has NOTHING to do with cancer.

    Missing a period through the use of pills has NOTHING to do with malnutrition/unhealthiness/etc, because it’s not something that your body is doing based on its own biochemical balance, it’s doing it because of a medication that is being administered.

    While I, too, have hesitations about hormonal contraception, I feel that my hesitation has an actual basis in reality. If the things you’re saying are true, I’d really like to read the literature that supports them.

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