Category Archives: Health

Guest Blogging

German readers and avid Google Translate users can read me over at the Mädchenmannschaft today. I wrote about the recent French law to fully reimburse contraception for minors and abortions.

Thoughts on Contraception

When I was sixteen, I went to my gynecologist for a check-up, hoping that this time he would prescribe me the contraceptive pill. I had not yet been sexually active but was planning to eventually, and I had also heard that it would clear my skin and regulate my cycle, which at that time was bothering me immensely.

It was very easy. I mentioned the duration and severity of my period and the doctor didn’t hesitate to suggest the pill. We had a short conversation about the proper use and function, and off I went with my prescription, ready to get started after my next period. Now, ten years later, I haven’t stopped since, not once, not even to take a break. For ten years, I have been taking a pill every single day for three weeks every month. Most recently, my gynecologist even suggested I take it for three months straight in order to reduce the frequency of my bleeding to four times a year. A dream come true? Continue reading

Why We Fight: The War on Women and the continuing attacks on our reproductive rights

I don’t always comment on every major event that’s happening in relation to women’s rights – I simply don’t have the time – but it still surprises me how long I have managed to stay silent about the current “War on Women” that is being waged by the GOP in the United States. The main reason has certainly not been ignorance, as I have been following the developments in detail. Rather, I have been speechless in light of the severity and magnitude of the political attacks on women’s rights and freedom. My initial reaction has been sheer incredulity.

I want to emphasize something I keep mentioning on this blog: feminism to me is fighting for women’s rights to ensure equality, but that doesn’t simply mean looking for new means to get there. More and more, feminism means preserving the rights that we already have, because even though they may seem common sense to us, it doesn’t mean there aren’t forces out there ready to take these rights away if given the chance.

The US-American War on Women is simply the most blatant and extreme example of how this plays out: the GOP race for the presidential candidate started out with confirmations of its anti-abortion stance (very sad indeed, but not at all surprising), and culminated in the demonization of all forms of birth control, the violation and criminalization of the woman’s body and the reduction of women’s lives to that of breeding cattle. I see no better way to phrase this and I don’t have the nerve for euphemisms. Women’s lives as we know them today? In the U.S. they are at risk, and if I lived over there I would seriously consider emigrating before I got into a situation where I would have to hand over my own bodily autonomy to the state.

But make no mistake: If you’re European and tend to dismiss the Republicans, the Tea Party and their supporters as crazy extremists, you’re fooling yourself. Because even Western Europe is slowly seizing to be a safe-haven when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. The attacks come mainly from the political right. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen stated her plans for restructuring Planning Familial centers (the French equivalent to Planned Parenthood), claiming that abortion had become too comfortable. Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s been trying to pander to the FN voters for a long time, recently suggested that minors need to obtain parental consent before being able to get on the pill.  In England, anti-abortion voices (I refuse to call them pro-life; that’s simply false advertising) have grown stronger and more influential, and they are not falling on deaf ears either. In Germany, a medical insurance company offered financial benefits to those who are members of the anti-abortion organisation Pro Life Deutschland and pledge that they would never have an abortion.

To be fair, all of these examples pale in comparison to  what is happening in the U.S. right now, but they are a reminder that women cannot rest on the laurels of second wave feminism, when these same achievements continue to be under attack. It is very easy to argue that these anti-abortion advances are based on moral and ethical values – and I am the last person to deny that these issues are something we need to negotiate as a society – but as the developments in the U.S. have shown, the underlying motives have little to do with progressive ethics and life choices, and everything to do with religious fundamentalism and reactionary views on family and the role on women.

Fact is, there is a generation of men and women out there that still believes that women should not be allowed to make decisions for themselves or for others. Because abortion and birth control isn’t just about children; it is about women’s ability to participate in society. And it is on our generation to reject this backlash and to prove that there are kinder, more sustainable alternatives that include a women’s right to her physical autonomy. To be clear: fighting for women’s reproductive rights is key, but we should never forget to emphasize the economic and social dimensions as well. Many attempts towards the restriction of abortion are justified with accusations of racism and eugenics without including the bigger picture. We cannot allow for these false accusations to take over the public debate. We need to reject the tampering with symptoms and continue to stress the causes: poverty, precarious labor, structural discrimination, societies hostile towards children and working mothers, austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state, an uncertain future…

On a lighter note: here is a hilarious response to former U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s anti-abortion campaign, and the termination of said campaign…

Funny or Die: Rick Santorum Aborts Presidential Campaign

It’s Your Turn, Darling! – Whatever Happened to Male Contraceptives?

We’ve been hearing it for years: new methods for male contraception are on the way. Well, where are they?
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Last week some of our hopes were shattered when the news broke that an international trial of a male hormonal injection was cancelled due to its serious side-effects in about 10% of the test persons. A percentage too high to be viable? That depends on the side-effects, one might think, so what are they?
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“One in ten men experienced side-effects including depression, weight gain, increased libido and acne. The older the trial person, the worse the symptoms were.” (Times Live, 2011.)
Hmm, I dunno, but speaking from experience, personal and other, I’d like to venture and say that sounds eerily familiar. The birth control pill for women has had to battle equally annoying side-effects, most of which are still an issue 50 years after it was first sold to the average woman, and not just test persons: Weight gain is typical, so is the loss of libido (increased libido is considered a side-effect these days, really?), not to speak of the increased risk of yeast infections, cancer and thrombosis. Strangely, that never stopped anyone from putting this product on the market.
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mood swings, weight gain, libido changes? clearly, these chicks could take it.

And rightly so. As we all know, the birth control pill had huge effects on the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s, as it promised women’s bodily autonomy and sexual emancipation. Unfortunately, this freedom comes at a price and “being on the pill” is never as simple and self-evident for a woman as many men (doctors and boyfriends) make it out to be. Therefore, sharing this responsibility within a relationship could come as a great relief, ideally for both partners. So why is there so little progress regarding the research of male contraceptives?

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Clearly, side-effects are not the problem here. It’s not too far-fetched to claim that the test persons of the trial might have simply been too whiny and exaggerating their symptoms. I’m not being mean; this is a conclusion that can be drawn from comparing this German trial to a 2009 study in China, which has been considered successful despite some minor side effects. No, something else is cooking here, and it has to do with male sensibilities other than their susceptibility to side-effects:
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“In the next 10 to 15 years there are no market opportunities for this,” said Friederike Lorenzen of Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals in Berlin. (Times Live, 2011.)
In other words: men wouldn’t buy it because they wouldn’t use it. Amanda Marcotte has written an interesting article about this dilemma. Even though she is talking about the male birth control pill, it is even truer for the injection, since it would generate even less money. That is, if men would use it. But why wouldn’t they? There are benefits, after all. Using male contraception in a relationship would take the burden off the shoulders of the female partner, at least for a while. A happy girlfriend makes for a happy relationship, one should think. But even more selfish-minded guys could enjoy the advantages: care-free sex in a relationship in which they can’t trust their partner not to trap them into baby-making (these kinds of relationships are obviously heavily flawed but there seem to be a few guys out there who fear that sort of thing…). But obviously these reasons are not enough. According to Marcotte, the proof can be found in an easy comparison:
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“One way to do this is to look at forms of birth control men do have, and look and see how much responsibility men take towards using these.
One good place to look is rates of sterilization.  Vasectomies are safer, less invasive, and quicker to heal from than tubal ligations, but the rate of female sterilization in the U.S. is twice the rate of vasectomy. (Actually, according to the CDC, women get sterilized at three times the rate of men.)” (Marcotte, Pandagon, 2011.)
What it all boils down to is a stereotype, whose constant reinforcement (by men and women) has made it come true: Women are responsible for contraception, because they are the ones that have the main responsibilities concerning unwanted pregnancies and are more at risk of contracting dangerous STIs. How many times do men pass on using a condom because they simply assume that the woman is on birth control? Sure, some women are negligent as well, but it is rarely in their own interest. In the long run, hormonal contraception is never ideal, neither for men nor women. Alternatively, one could ask why the existing birth control methods for women aren’t being improved, or rather why are some of them not as heavily promoted and encouraged as the pill? The answer lies with doctors and pharmaceutical companies, and I’m afraid it has little to do with reducing health risks and everything to do with money.
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So what’s a girl to do? Do some research, find out what works best for you, or bear the burden until the day you get to say: It’s your turn, darling!

European Court Of Justice Rules Against Gender-Based Insurance Rates

I have the privilege of having been born the daughter of two public servants, thus making me eligible for private health insurance. Until recently, I was insured under my mother’s coverage, so I never bothered much with the details. Therefore I was quite surprised when one day my mother pointed out to me: “Of course, I pay more for my insurance for being a woman!”
Of course? Why?
“Because we get older than men and have children, and therefore have to go to the doctor more often.”
That got me thinking. It’s true, my mother had two children, me and my sister. But for some reason I strongly believe that my father was just as concerned about our and my mother’s health during and after the pregnancy. You don’t get pregnant without a man involved, so why is it a woman’s responsibility only to pay for her “special needs” when she has private health insurance? We should all be concerned with bringing children safely and healthily into this world, no matter if we are men or women (with or without children).
The difference in the life expectancy of men and women may be debatable. Statistics say it exists, but is it biologically invariant or rather subject to the respective living conditions? Perhaps women get older, because they (are obliged to) go to the doctor more often. The only reason for why I could see my mother potentially getting older than my father is the fact that she is an absolute exercise and health freak. To hold an entire gender financially accountable for their health choices, strikes me as, well, ridiculous. And discriminatory.
So I can’t help but feel a little relieved that this practice has now been outlawed in the European Union. 

On March 1st the European Court of Justice ruled that insurance companies can no longer discriminate on the basis of gender. This law affects life insurance, pension insurance, health insurance and car insurance, all of which offer different rates for men and women according to their risk potential. Statistically, men are considered more likely to cause traffic accidents and women are considered more likely to live five years longer and to give birth. According to these statistics men and women had to face different rates for their insurances, a practice that has now been outlawed in the European Union. The law takes effect in December 2011.

Critics have argued that this law will only lead to more costs for everyone, instead of balancing out the inequalities. However, it should be noted that the loudest voices among the critics come from the insurance companies themselves. Why, in the face of generally higher premium rates, they would be critical of this regulation is a mystery to me, unless, of course, they have been hugely benefiting from this discriminatory practice. Naturally, it is more difficult and takes more effort to determine someone’s individual risk potential if gender is no longer a valid category, even though it would make for a fairer and more appropriate calculation.

In this context, it is worth looking at articles from the 1980’s, when unisex insurance rates were a heatedly debated issue in the United States. Back in 1985, Montana was the first American state to introduce a unisex insurance law, and today it is one of two American states that have outlawed gender-based discrimination in insurance policies, with this law being constantly under threat .
In this article from 1985, the authors offer a cost-benefit analysis of different kinds of discrimination (race, sex and age) regarding insurance policies, based on “the premise that American society has reached a collective judgment that discrimination against individuals on the basis of innate human characteristics is repugnant” (p.332). They come to the conclusion that unlike the elimination of age discrimination, which may be morally desirable but not affordable for society, the elimination of the discrimination on the basis of race and gender is both desirable and affordable.

I welcome this law here in Europe as a means to limit discriminatory practices in the economy. Just like discrimination on the basis of race should never be acceptable, gender should not be a valid category to determine premiums and payments.

"Of course men are better drivers than women, even though my car insurance doesn't seem to think so..."

Newswatch

Today’s show on Democracy Now! is full of horrifying news:

Sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military has been ignored by the Pentagon for years – now they’re facing a lawsuit.

CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted during the Kairo demonstrations, and the media has resorted to victim-blaming and racism.

The Republicans’ “War on women” is widening in scope.

Notes on Abortion

Some truly horrendous news have made the rounds this week. First, a couple from Minneapolis in the U.S. of Anything-is-possible has decided to create an online poll on whether or not they should have a baby. I would have voted please, don’t but unfortunately the woman is already pregnant. The poll on birthornot.com is supposed to decide whether or not the Arnolds should deliver their baby or have it aborted.

The blog has already been debunked as a right-wing anti-choice trolling stunt but the evidence for that lies in the entire concept of the blog itself. As Amanda over at Feministe has pointed out:

At first blush, I gave it 9-to-1 odds that it’s an anti-choice stunt, just on the fact that the couple running it have the pro-choice view completely backwards. Putting what you do with your body up to a vote is the anti-choice view. Treating women’s bodies like they’re public property is the anti-choice view.

Cindy Sherman: "Still", 1978

Needless to say, the whole idea is absolutely disgusting. Obviously, the future parents (Oh God) are not really considering an abortion but instead are trying to create outrage against the pro-choice movement. Except, of course, the pro-choice movement would never encourage people to leave it to random users on the internet to make this crucial and life-changing decision. Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion. It means respecting the autonomy of the woman’s body and ensuring her safety and well-being when she executes her right to this autonomy. Therefore it is necessary that the legal framework allows for safe and professional abortion clinics. Countries that do not provide this legal framework will have to be held responsible for disturbing news such as this: In Thailand, 2000 illegally aborted fetuses were found in the mortuary of a Buddhist temple.

Abortions are illegal in Thailand except when the mother’s life is in danger or she has been the victim of rape or incest. The New York Times writes:

Thailand is a Buddhist country, and many people are generally conservative on sexual matters. Though there is a thriving sex industry here and birth control is widely available, advocates for safe sex say many young people are ill informed on the subject.

[...]

The woman under arrest [for providing the illegal abortions, my insert], Lanchakorn Janthamanas, 33, was quoted in newspapers as saying that she learned to perform abortions by watching the doctor and the nurse with whom she used to work. Most of her customers were students and teenagers, she said. (Seth Mydans, NYT, 2010)

Illegal or not, abortions will happen, the question is only whether or not it will be at the expense of women’s lives and human decency. Abortions cannot be prevented but pregnancies can. The Dutch for example have a very relaxed approach to teenage sexuality; easy access to birth control and sexual health education is readily provided. As a matter of fact, the Netherlands have very liberal laws on abortion. Coincidentally, it is also one of the countries with the lowest youth pregnancy, abortion and STD rates.

Unfortunately, there has yet to be developed a contraceptive for utter stupidity. My only hope is that the future child of the Arnolds will grow up unaware of the fact that its parents deprived it of its dignity by using it as a political tool.

Wangechi Mutu: "Untitled"

UPDATE: The Pope Benedikt XVI. has, for the first time ever, approved of the use of condoms ”in well-founded singular cases“; a huge step towards decreasing the rates of abortions and, of course, AIDS.

UPDATE: Apparently, I was a bit too hasty with my last statement. The Pope implies, that he approves of condom use only to prevent infection, not pregnancies. While I am glad that he cares so much about male prostitutes, it is disheartening to see that women are once again reduced to mere vessels for potential new life.

Why Women’s Health is a Feminist Issue

Health is an issue for everybody. Our bodies are not just tools that allow us to do the things we do, they are the very precondition for life. Therefore, if our bodies happen to fail us, it is a threat to life as we know it and affects us all. Why, then, should health be a feminist issue?

As women, we often become aware of our difference in health care when our first visit to the gynecologist is scheduled. For most girls this is a very particular experience, ranging from dreadful to “not a big deal”, but in any case it is an experience that separates us from the boys like a secret only we can share. Rarely do we question this special treatment; after all, we‘re the ones who menstruate and we get pregnant and give birth, enough reason to justify the special attention. But with that ‘privilege’ comes a huge burden as well: a focus on women’s bodies that is not only positive, a stronger responsibility concerning contraception and STD prevention, and, more generally, discrimination in the labor market, in the health care and insurance system etc.

At this stage I should mention that women’s health has different connotations for every woman, according to certain crucial factors such as race, class, sexuality, age and dis(ability). We should never forget that there is still a large percentage of women out there who have never been and may never be able to go to a gynecologist. In this article, I will try to focus on women’s health issues that concern most women all over the world.

demonstration of hysterical subject

In the history of women’s health the most well-known ‘disease’ attributed to women in particular is hysteria. Towards the end of the 19th century its medical diagnosis became a huge trend, especially in Victorian England, and special cases, such as Freud’s patient “Anna O.”, became widely known and discussed. Hysteria was a particularly female phenomenon and men were only diagnosed with it if they were considered somewhat ‘feminine’. Today, hysteria is not considered a valid medical disorder anymore and has been replaced by differently termed diagnoses that are applied to both men and women. However, similar diseases specific to women still exist, as we can see with the ongoing discussion about what PMS is or isn’t, or other modern illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, which are primarily affecting young women. Like hysteria, these disorders reflect women’s issues with regaining control over their lives and bodies and negotiating stereotypes and their roles in society.

Eating disorders have been on the rise in Western consumer societies for a while now, which brings me to my first focus: the beauty industry. Obviously, women are the major targets of the beauty industry for reasons I do not need to mention here. This becomes a health problem insofar as it creates false body images of women who try to live up to these ideals even at the cost of their health. I am aware that this is largely a Western problem, but globalization has affected women all over the world: in Japanese fashion magazines the minority of models are Asian; in India and African countries the ideal of typically Caucasian features is celebrated in advertisements for skin-lightening lotions and hair-straightening products. As a consequence of this beauty craze, particular health risks can be attributed to wearing high heels, using poisonous beauty products, as well as eating disorders and plastic surgery.

Despite the worldwide interest in women’s beauty, historically they have also been considered unclean because of their monthly menstruation. The idea of women’s ‘unsanitary’ bodies has prevailed until today, as exemplified by the numerous cleansing products available for our vaginas, most of which are in fact dangerous to women’s health.

Sexual health is also an issue for everyone, but for women even more so. STDs are simply more dangerous for women, as they can lead to infertility, higher risks during pregnancy and childbirth, and cervical cancer. The AIDS/HIV crisis in Africa affects women in particular, as they often are the victims of rape and sexual assault.

At the same time, decisions about contraception are often left to the women because they run the risk of getting pregnant. Today, the most common forms of birth control are hormonal contraceptives, specifically the pill. Despite all of its known (and perhaps not yet known) side-effects, it is the first and sometimes only solution doctors suggest to girls and young women for various problems, and little is done to research and find new methods.

so many choices... not really

We simply aren’t offered many choices but have to deal with the consequences of them, physically (risk of pregnancy vs. risk of cancer, physical changes etc.)and psychologically (i.e. relationships can be affected by loss of sexual drive).

Last but not least, there is the undeniable fact that as of now biological women are the only ones able to conceive and give birth to children, which leads to a variety of health risks only women are exposed to. This is not the place to start a discussion about abortion, but it should be clear to everyone that women’s reproductive health is a huge issue all over the world and demands special attention.

All of these examples I have given about the difference of women’s health should not lead to the conclusion that men’s health can simply be ignored or is of less importance. STD prevention and birth control are only two examples that show that men’s health, too, is a feminist issue that concerns both men and women. We need to know about the specifics of men as much as they need to know about us. This is the only way we can establish equal relations, in private as well as in public life. The first visit to the gynecologist should no longer be a girl’s club secret; it should be talked about and be taken for granted by girls and boys as a universal right. Likewise, boys should have access and be encouraged to get medical information about their bodies, as well as STDs and birth control, because it concerns them as much as us. The special status of women in health care is important, but it is useless without getting men involved as well.

men's health is important, too - so they can go to war and get killed