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A cure for being female

MagazineJanuary 1994 (Vol. 4 Issue 10)A cure for being female

In the highly successful marketing campaign for HRT, drug companies have managed to pitch the drug as an all purpose cure all of the bugbears of old age

In the highly successful marketing campaign for HRT, drug companies have managed to pitch the drug as an all purpose cure all of the bugbears of old age. Defenders of HRT haul out a roll call of alleged benefits prevention of heart disease, brittle

Many women get convinced that a trebling in the risk of breast cancer and a quadrupled risk of endometrial cancer aren't so bad with a drug that also guarantees that they won't develop heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke or Alzheimer's.

As our cover story shows, every last one of these claims has been built upon sand. The latest study of HRT and osteoporosis shows that women following the usual recommendation to take the drug for 10 years upon the start of menopause don't do any better in preventing brittle bones than those who have never taken the drug at all.

In an accompanying editorial to the study, Californians Drs Bruce Ettinger and Dr Deborah Grady, scrounging around to salvage any worth from this drug in terms of preventing bone loss, suggest variously that HRT should be taken forever (at which point the cancer risks begin to sky rocket); or begun 10 years after the menopause, long after a woman has experienced all the menopausal symptoms the drug is supposed to alleviate; or even be given after a woman breaks her hip, which would seem to be more than a little self defeating.

As for the cardiovascular risks, the scientific method behind these claims is so shaky that the journals they appear in are almost apologetic about publishing them.

There are three insidious things at work here. The first is inventing the problem in order to sell the solution, the sort of fear tactic used to sell things like female deodorants in this case, turning menopause and older age into a disease. Convince women that menopausal symptoms will be intolerable, that age alone is responsible for heart and bone disease, and, most particularly, that men find the end of child bearing repulsive, and you've got a product that women will be scrambling over each other to take.

The second element in the selling of HRT occurs time and again in medicine. Enthusiasm for this drug is so great that medicine is willing to ignore the grossest of scientific lapses in order to promote what is looked upon prima facie as a good thing. Every major medical journal has called for better studies on this drug to prove its benefits and study its risks, and so far, not one has been forthcoming, because they're not considered really necessary.

Finally, what is being dressed up by many doctors as a feminist issue is a basic horror of female aging.

Let's be very clear about one thing. Making available to women a dangerous, product that artificially prolongs youth without genuine health benefits is not a feminist issue. What neo feminists like Naomi Wolf really ought to write about is the most overlooked feminist issue of all: how doctors contribute to the epidemic of breast cancer in their relentless selling of a "cure" for being female.


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