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April 25-May 1, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

How to Control My Body

By Annalee Newitz

THE BIOLOGICAL functioning of my body is all over the news right now. Lawmakers and federal regulatory agencies are asking themselves whether I should be allowed to have abortions, and whether I should be allowed to take a drug that prevents me from menstruating.

You probably know about the brouhaha over abortion, spurred by last week's Supreme Court decision, but you may not have realized that decision came as the FDA decides the fate of Lybrel, a birth control pill that could liberate millions of women from paying Tampax for "wings" every month. But these two issues are not unrelated. They are both symptoms of how much the government loves to regulate the basic functioning of my body. Still, there are some key differences.

Most arguments over abortion boil down to whether you think a woman's right to control her future is more or less important than the much-debated rights of a potential human. Because the legal status of a fetus has become part of the abortion debate, it's hard to cast abortion purely as a female reproductive-rights issue (as much as I'd like to do it). These days, the abortion debate is also about how we define human life, and whether a fetus constitutes a being that deserves legal protection.

However, the issue of controlling our menstrual cycles is unequivocally about the female reproductive cycle, untainted by questions of embryo civil rights. Why should there be any controversy over pharmaceutical company Wyeth marketing Lybrel, which is exactly like a birth control pill without the seven-day placebo cycle that creates a fake "period"? (In case you aren't a pill geek, the "period" women have while taking contraceptive pills is caused only by hormone fluctuation and not a biological need to flush out unused eggs—the pill works by preventing the ripening of said eggs. So it's purely a cosmetic menstrual cycle.)

There are good reasons to do testing on Lybrel, since nobody is completely sure what might happen in the long term to women who stop menstruating. But now that Wyeth has demonstrated the safety of this pill, what's the big deal?

The New York Times recently published a much-discussed article about negative reactions to Lybrel and other drugs like it. Canadian psychologist Christine Hitchcock told the paper she didn't like "the idea that you can turn your body on and off like a tap." Giovanna Chesler, who just made a documentary about "the end of menstruation," objects to the idea that taking a daily pill makes women appear defective. "Women are not sick," she said. "They don't need to control their periods for 30 or 40 years."

It's interesting that Chesler uses the word "control" in her comment. Why are women eager to relinquish control over their periods, arguably one of the most annoying parts of being a biological female? After all, we take calcium pills to "control" bone density; we take showers to "control" odor; and we take ibuprofin to "control" pain. None of these things are necessary. We don't do them because we are "sick," and not doing them won't kill us.

So why shouldn't we take control of our bodies and stop having periods if we want to? There are no fetuses being harmed here. Why should we reject Lybrel, if not for the dogma that it's unnatural for women to control their reproductive functions?

Yes, Wyeth stands to make money on Lybrel, and I'm no fan of pharmaceutical companies, but women already pay to deal with their periods. We pump billions of dollars into feminine hygiene products so Kotex can sell us more "wings" and "soft applicators" and "super absorbent" crap. I say if we can take pills that free us from having to deal with the monthly goo and bother, then let's do it. Nobody is saying periods are sick or wrong here. It's just that they're annoying and uncomfortable—and if women don't want to deal with them they shouldn't have to.

The social rejection of drugs like Lybrel—which the FDA has already turned down for approval once—is based on the idea that there is something about women's bodies that women themselves should not be allowed to control. Even in the absence of the fetus debates, we're still seeing women who are afraid to control their own reproductive systems. As long as we are in thrall to this fear, we will never triumph in the struggle for abortion rights and effective birth control.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who gets horrible migraines from birth control pills, so she (alas) will remain trapped in a prehistoric female body.

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