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A Season to Bleed

Chemically altering women’s bodies and mentally altering perceptions of “normal”

By Lizbeth Finn-Arnold

I’ll be the first one to admit that getting my monthly period is a veritable pain in the you-know-what. It always seems to come at the least convenient time, and brings with it unwelcome cramps, headaches, fatigue, bloating, and the blues. As busy women, competing in a man’s world, with no time to slow down, our periods are generally unwanted intrusions. As distracted moms, our periods are just one more inconvenience. Face it, there is no good time to bleed.

So you would think that I would be ecstatic to learn that in September 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved a drug that for all intents and purposes, may abolish monthly bleeding from our lives. But I’m not. In fact, I find it appalling that U.S. pharmaceutical companies can brazenly promote the chemical alteration of our female bodies for profit, with very little opposition or public discussion. Instead, they promise a pill that will “liberate us”; yet completely ignore the way this magical pill can negatively impact our cultural perceptions of what is normal, natural, and acceptable for women’s bodies.

Produced by Barr Laboratories, Inc., in Woodcliff, New Jersey, “Seasonale®” is being marketed as the first “extended-cycle birth control pill.” According to a company press release, “The Seasonale regimen is designed to reduce the number of periods from 13 to 4 per year. Seasonale is a 91 day regimen taken daily as 84 active tablets of 0.15 mg of levonorgestrel/0.03 mg of ethinyl estradiol, followed by 7 inactive tablets.” As a result, women will no longer have lunar cycles; but find themselves with four “seasonal cycles” of bleeding.

According to WebMD Medical News, Dr. Paul Norris, a professor of obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Miami School of Medicine stated that “This probably is the first step of a progression towards yearly ....periods, maybe longer.”

Seasonale® is touted as being especially beneficial to women who suffer from severe premenstrual symptoms. “It’s definitely not for everyone,” Norris continued. “But for women who have cyclic problems, who are anemic, have symptomatic fibroids, and for women who are very active and just don’t want to be bothered by periods, it’s good news.”

And good news for Barr Laboratories, a company that stands to make billions of dollars if they can convince women that their periods are an inconvenience that they can live without. Seasonale® is Barr’s first internally developed New Drug Application (NDA) product to gain FDA approval and therefore is incredibly important to the company that “currently ranks as the third largest manufacturer and marketer of oral contraceptive products in the U.S. marketplace.”

Lara Owen, author of Honoring Menstruation: A Time of Self Renewal (Crossing Press 1998) has serious reservations about Seasonale®. She states, “While this drug may perhaps prove useful for some women with serious menstrual pathology, for healthy women it sounds potentially disastrous. Monthly menstruation has a variety of positive effects on the body/mind: it is a crucial element in the continuous ebb and flow of hormones central to overall health in women up till the time of menopause. It is also part of a concurrent emotional cycle in which a woman gains in maturity and self-knowledge through staying current with her feelings. To suppress this cycle puts at risk both physical health and psychological well being.”

The National Women’s Health Network, a network that serves as a watchdog over the regulation of drugs and devices that are marketed, prescribed and sold to women, also has reservations. While supporting the availability of Seasonale® as a contraceptive option, the network conveys concern about the methods in which the drug is already being discussed in the medical community. Their statement reads: “If menstrual suppression is presented as the preferred option, it will stigmatize menstruation and may raise unsupported and inaccurate worries about their periods among women who prefer the monthly cycle.” The network warns that the medical community should “avoid exaggerating the medical need or overstating the health benefits.”

Barr indicates that it plans to market Seasonale® directly to physicians and healthcare professionals, rather than consumers. But it appears as if Barr is already preparing a receptive marketplace for its product. Barr provides a “Know Your Period” educational website, which is described as being “sponsored by leading female women’s health experts,” and “designed to educate and inform women about important health and lifestyle issues related to menstrual periods.” The site, while informative with many links to various women’s health sites, is in fact solely sponsored by Barr Laboratories. However, the Barr company logo and name only appear on the “About Us” page.

The site, though, is not completely without an agenda. While it never openly mentions or directly promotes Seasonale® , the site sets the “groundwork” for its marketing campaign. On the “Menstrual Myth & Facts” page, the first “fact” declares that “Monthly periods are normal, but not necessarily necessary,” and continues to say that “there is no medical reason to maintaining the monthly period associated with oral contraceptives.”

But some, like Sheryl Paul, M.A., wholeheartedly disagree with Barr and the belief that monthly periods are not necessary. Ms. Paul, a counselor in California, and the author of The Conscious Bride (New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2000) has closely studied rites of passage. She says, “There is often great wisdom and important information in the symptoms that emerge during each phase of woman’s cycle—from ovulation to the premenstrual phase to bleeding itself. These symptoms are one of the ways our bodies are attempting to communicate with us, and when we learn to decode the messages we are often rewarded with the boons of creativity, insight, and compassion. A woman’s menstrual cycle is her wisdom. It’s her gateway into womanhood. It’s her direct connection to the mystery of life, death, and rebirth.”

“The alteration of women’s bodies
has become
big pharmaceutical business.”

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