I admit, I didn’t know that this is National Women’s Health Week until I received a reminder in my inbox from a U.S. FDA mailing list, letting me know about the Food & Drug Administration’s role in promoting Women’s Health. They’ve published a brochure (available in both HTML and PDF versions) commemorating 100 Years of Protecting and Promoting Women’s Health.
Society for Menstrual Cycle Research members and other women’s health advocates and activists will want to look through the list of the accomplishments the FDA claims responsibility for and lists as unequivocal improvements in women’s health.
For instance, we’ve had many discussions at re:Cycling about the FDA approval of the pill in 1960 as one holding mixed benefits for women, and not always the best choice for women’s health. The brochure also asserts that in 1970, “FDA initiated the first package insert written for consumers to explain to women the benefits and potential risks of oral contraceptives.” That happened in 1970, but Barbara Seaman, Alice Wolfson, and the other founding mothers of the National Women’s Health Network had more to do with its initiation than the FDA.
And here’s another inspiring quote from the FDA brochure:
1980: Making Tampon Use Safer
Problem: In 1980, there were 814 confirmed cases of menstrual related Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) and 38 deaths from the disease.
Response: FDA began requiring all tampon packages to include package inserts educating women about the risk of TSS and how to prevent it. In 1997, there were only five confirmed menstrually-related TSS cases and no deaths. The tampon package inserts with TSS information continue to be used today.
Sure, the FDA is proud of those safety rules now, but in 1982 the agency asked the industry to come up with their own voluntary standards because they did NOT want to regulate tampon safety. After years of pressure and organizing from Boston Women’s Health Collective members Esther Rome and Judy Norsigian, activist Jill Wolhander, researcher Nancy Reame, and others to standardize tampon absorbency ratings, the FDA finally enacted regulations in 1989, by court order. Nine years after 38 women died from a tampon-related illness.
Just last year, the FDA could have made another decision that would almost certainly save women’s lives, by removing birth control pills containing the synthetic progesterone drospirenone from the market, but instead the advisory panel voted by a four-person margin that the drugs’ benefit outweighed the risks.
You know what else isn’t on the list? Emergency contraception, a.k.a. the Morning After Pill and Plan B. The agency hemmed and hawed and delayed unconscionably for years, until finally approving it for limited over-the-counter availability in 2006 — a year after Susan Wood walked out of the FDA Office of Women’s Health for good over what she believed to be “willful disregard of scientific evidence showing Plan B to be safe.”
Celebrating organizational achievements that advance and protect women’s health is a fine thing. I’m glad Frances Kelsey withheld approval of Thalidomide in 1960, and for the most part, I’m glad the FDA is on the job. But while we’re celebrating women’s health and reminding everyone to be active, eat healthy, and get preventive health care (if they are so fortunate to have access to health care), let’s also celebrate the activists and advocates that keep agencies like the FDA in line.