The Medicalization of Midlife and Menopause

By Christine Cupaiuolo — January 29, 2007

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and a contributor to “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause,” has written a compelling piece for The American Prospect Online calling out hormone replacement therapy, not menopause, as the public health issue with which the medical community should be concerned.

Ever since the National Institutes of Health cut short a hormone therapy study called the Women’s Health Initiative estrogen-plus-progestin study, which found a higher risk of breast cancer, stroke, blood clots and heart attacks among women taking the combined therapy, the pharmacy industry, argues Gullette, has taken the position that the WHI overstated the risks, scaring too many women away from hormone treatments.

And the media has played along, presenting menopause as a condition that must be treated despite the fact that “the end of menstruation is unremarkable to about 90 percent of American women — the vast majority that never sought help,” writes Gullette, adding, “Even before the 2002 findings, rates of estrogen use varied — from a low of 8 percent in Massachusetts to 40 percent in California. Most women soon forget menopause.”

In December 2006, researchers announced a startling drop in the rate of breast cancer cases. This decrease is believed to be tied to the reduction of women taking hormone treatments since the publication of the WHI study. Gullette writes:

Feminists had long sounded warnings: feminist health activist Barbara Seaman called hormone treatment The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women in 2003. A companion experiment may be on midlife men. Big Pharma has lost so many women customers since 2002 that promoting testosterone (and human growth hormone) is next, according to cultural historian John Hoberman in his 2005 book Testosterone Dreams. Men will be at risk unless they understand that the drummed-up “disease” of menopause has created a model for selling hormones to them as well.

Before 2002, Americans could read about volumes about menopause and never discover that women’s health advocates thought hormone treatment dangerous. Far from teaching the controversy, the media acted as if it didn’t exist. And even since 2002, despite clear evidence of estrogen carcinogenesis, many in the media are in effect promoting the hormone comeback that Big Pharma wants. Estrogen bias drives what we are told about midlife women, what women are told in advance, the language that gets used, and the facts that remain hidden.

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