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Is a Pill That Halts the Period Good for Women?

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Lybrel, a birth-control pill headed for market, eliminates the menstrual cycle if taken daily. But is that really a wise thing? Jean Elson, a medical sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, offers her insights.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

If you're a woman of a certain age, you probably remember health class. You'd sit in a darkened classroom and watch filmstrips that were designed to teach girls about how their bodies worked. Maybe you remember this one:

(Soundbite of health class filmstrips)

Unidentified Woman: Molly's(ph) growing up. She's having her first menstrual period. Each girl's body sets up her own time and rhythm. Menstruation is perfectly normal. It happens every month.

Unidentified Man: And Janey(ph) may feel real physical discomfort such as cramps or headaches.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, it's just part of being a woman, I guess.

HANSEN: Well, now, according to Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, that part of being a woman can be eliminated. The company has just introduced Lybrel, the first birth-control pill that it says completely stops menstrual bleeding. The Food and Drug Administration approved the new pill this past Tuesday. Medically, Lybrel may prove to be beneficial to women who suffer from painful cramps and headaches.

But there are other aspects to consider. Dr. Jean Elson is a medical sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Dr. JEAN ELSON (Sociology, University of New Hampshire): Ah. Thank you very much.

HANSEN: Let's look at it from a sociological point of view.

Dr. ELSON: Great.

HANSEN: What do you consider to be the side effects, both good or bad, of this pill?

Dr. ELSON: Well, I think that the main side effect - I love the clip that you picked, because I thought that was really interesting, that's the way a lot of us as women - or as girls, I should say - first learned about menstruation, that it was going to be a bother.

I think that this product can be very useful for women who have extraordinary problems with their menstrual periods, and I certainly would think that that would be a good use of this medication - women who suffer maybe excruciating, painful cramps or who bleed excessively.

But that's not how it's being marketed. It's being marketed as a product to allow women to control their menstrual cycles. And in fact, one of the important problems is that this is not necessarily making bleeding controllable. A fair percentage of women who dropped out of the tests for this medication because they were spotting or experienced breakthrough bleeding. And so if the goal of women is to eliminate the so-called messiness or discomfort or inconvenience or embarrassment, they may be exchanging this for something that's even more unpredictable.

HANSEN: Is it your concern that women may decide to take the pill for reasons that aren't medical?

Dr. ELSON: Yes. To use medication to treat a medical problem is perfectly appropriate. But for most women, menstruation is a normal life event, not a medical problem. And I think that another problem that - you know, another difficulty here is that we are giving young girls the message to expect that menstruation is a problem rather than what it really is, which is a sign of health. The ability to menstruate is really indicative of a woman or a girl's health.

HANSEN: You know, there are cultural implications of...

Dr. ELSON: Absolutely.

HANSEN: ...menstruation...

Dr. ELSON: Absolutely.

HANSEN: ...and there's this whole idea that's been expressed that, you know, maybe men might respect women more, you know, if they didn't have periods.

Dr. ELSON: Absolutely. The way that we - I really believe that the way that we look at menstruation in a particular culture really mirrors how we feel about women in general. There has been a whole history, a cultural history, of viewing men's bodies as the norm and then viewing women's bodies as a deviation from that and specifically menstruation as a deviation from a normal body, and that's not really the case. It is absolutely normal and natural for women and for girls of a certain age to menstruate.

HANSEN: What advice would you give to a young woman who might be considering this medication?

Dr. ELSON: Well, I'm a great believer in being an informed consumer. Really, when we think about any medication, we need to think about costs and benefits. And for somebody who has a medical condition, they have very different costs and benefits than for somebody who wants to take medication for a matter of convenience.

I would tell a young woman to make sure that she knows that we don't know what the future effects of this medication are and that she may be balancing - you know, she doesn't have a real medical problem - she may be balancing inconvenience or messiness or embarrassment, currently, with future health problems.

HANSEN: Dr. Jean Elson is an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire and the author of "Am I Still a Woman? Hysterectomy and Gender Identity." She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

Dr. ELSON: Thank you so much.

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