Saturday, May 26, 2007
It's been very interesting to read all the male speculation on the emotional benefits (or not) of menstruation, musings prompted by the FDA's approval of Lybrel, the birth control pill that purportedly eliminates periods (although it is more accurate to say that, unlike traditional pill regimens, it does not induce gratuitous monthly, non-menstrual bleeding -- more on that below). William Saletan (see yesterday's post) says he'll "stay out of the fight over womanhood." Eugene Volokh, though, leaps right in, devoting a whole post to the issue, first laying out his assumption that most women must hate their periods but then seeking input from "people who have actually menstruated."
At this post, KipEsquire asks, "How soon before radical feminists, neo-hippies and other professional anti-progress malcontents decry Lybrel and praise menstruation as a noble, to-be-celebrated part of the "female experience"?" Hmm... why so sarcastic? I guess he knows better than any "radical feminist" what the "female experience" is really all about.
I suppose I fall into the "radical feminist" camp, but my own reaction to all the uproar over suppressed menstruation can't be summarized quite that neatly. In debating the benefits and drawbacks of periods in the context of Lybrel, most people seem to miss what to me is the most important point: that any "period" that occurs when a woman is on the pill isn't a period at all. I personally felt snookered when I learned years ago that the (male) inventors of the birth control pill, Gregory Pincus and John Rock, had no medical reason for including a week of placebo sugar pills to induce a fake "period," but instead did so because they assumed that women (and the public) would more readily accept the pill if women appeared to continue to menstruate every month.
While I can imagine that some women, for a variety of reasons, might welcome a biological period, it's hard for me to understand why they would welcome a male-invented, apparently medically unnecessary, pretend period. Being on the pill interferes with a woman's reproductive cycle by stopping ovulation (and, along with it, all real menstruation). Given the numbers of women who take the pill, people seem comfortable with that, so I'm puzzled at how introducing a monthly week of gratuitous bleeding makes the situation any more "natural." I worry that the decades in which women (and men) have become accustomed to these fake, monthly periods have shaped perceptions about what is beneficial or normal for women. Or maybe for many women it's just that they've been misinformed or misled about what is really happening when they continue to bleed every month while on the pill.
For more on this, see The Well-Timed Period (Lybrel Approved and I Offer Marketing Advice to Wyeth Via a NYT Critique), which also has a helpful post explaining the difference between menstruation and the "withdrawal bleeding" induced by placebo pills (or a week without taking pills) in ordinary birth control regimens.