A look at sexism in women’s healthcare this week

This week, for Valentine’s Day, Sam Evans wrote for us about the stigma and dismissal that surrounds female sexual dysfunction. Earlier in the week I’d shared a stat from charity Wellbeing of Women – that in 2018, there were 393 clinical trials on the severe pain some women experience during sex. On male erectile dysfunction – unsurprisingly – there were 1,954.

It’s what author Maya Dusenbery refers to, in her book Doing Harm, as ‘the knowledge gap’ – he way in which women’s health conditions are under researched compared to men’s, and how this helps perpetuate a medical system in which women’s health concerns are less likely (as Sam highlights in her post!) than men’s to be taken seriously.

We’ll be exploring this knowledge gap – and its friend, the trust gap – in next week’s post, which is a Q&A with Maya on all things hysterical. In the meantime, here’s what’s been happening this week…

Women’s healthcare bodies call on BBC to reverse stance on abortion information

A group of healthcare bodies this week published a letter to BBC Action Line asking that they reverse their current stance on providing links to information about abortion. The letter is co-signed by British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Brook, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, Family Planning Association (FPA), Marie Stopes UK, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

The issue emerged following last week’s episode of Call the Midwife in which one of the characters died as a result of complications from an illegal “backstreet” abortion.  At the end of the programme, the BBC Action Line website was advertised for viewers who wished to seek information and support for issues covered in the programme. A number of women who visited the website contacted the charity the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, to highlight that there were no sources of advice relating to abortion.

In response to bpas, who raised their concerns about the omission of abortion support, BBC Action Line stated that they had chosen to not include abortion because it is “contentious” and including this information could be seen as “supporting one side”. Healthcare bodies have written to the BBC expressing their “disappointment” and asking that they amend this position:

Abortion has been legal, in certain circumstances, in Great Britain for over 50 years, and 98% of terminations are funded by the NHS. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure in the UK, and one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Polling demonstrates that the vast majority of the public support a woman’s right to choose, including those with a religious belief. Abortion is not a “contentious issue”– it is a routine part of NHS-funded healthcare, provided by doctors, nurses, and midwives every day in hospitals and clinics across the country.

The BBC Action Line response states that including links to information about abortion could imply the BBC “supported one side or another.” However, in barring information the BBC is in effect “supporting one side” by treating abortion as different to all the other medical procedures and conditions the BBC choses to include. This is highly stigmatising for the healthcare professionals we represent and the women we care for.

The healthcare bodies have provided links to evidence-based, impartial information for the BBC to consider, and stressed that their complaint lies solely with BBC Action Line and is in no way related to the programme Call the Midwife, which they state has repeatedly handled this issue “extremely sensitively and courageously.”

The Unexpected Way That The Contraceptive Pill Affects Your Brain

Another study was published this week into side effects of the contraceptive pill – this time looking at its impact on women’s ability to read the emotions of others from their facial expressions. As Vicky Spratt writes for Grazia:

What’s becoming increasingly clear is that there is a lot we don’t know about how hormonal contraceptives affect the women who take them because, put simply, the research into side effects – particularly those that involve mental health – was never done. The story of the pill’s creation serves as a reminder of that.

This week a new study which looks at how the pill affects women’s cognition (how she perceives and understands things around her) was published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. It has made serious waves.

It was conducted by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany and focused on how the pill affects a woman’s ability to read the emotional of others from their facial expressions.

Millions of women in this country take the pill and yet, still, as the researchers themselves put it ’remarkably little is known about the effects of oral contraceptives on emotion, cognition and behaviour’.

Also published this week, on the subject of the contraceptive pill…

Tell us the truth about the pill: Demand women who say their lives were blighted

Caroline Allen speaks to three women about their experiences, for The Daily Mail:

While many millions of women take the Pill without problems, a significant minority are reporting a devastating impact on their emotional well-being.

Depression is listed as a side-effect in the small print warnings leaflet included in every packet, along with symptoms such as blood clotting, weight gain, pain and decreased libido — although experts say doctors are failing to make women aware of the risks.

Some believe medics are worried about a spike in unwanted pregnancies if women’s trust in the Pill is shaken.

Since I began writing about the Pill, hundreds of women have contacted me to share their bad experiences.

I hope that by encouraging this conversation, more women will feel better equipped to ask their GP for help finding a solution that works for them.

In the meantime, far more research is needed into the link between hormonal contraception and mental health — not to mention more support.

Expecting women to find a solution by trial and error simply isn’t good enough.

Health minister says women harmed by mesh should sue their surgeons

More news on the vaginal mesh scandal, as health minister Jackie Doyle-Price this week told Parliament: “It is becoming clear that mesh was deployed far too insensibly—far too many women were given this treatment, often at comparatively young ages, given that this was going to stay in their body for a long time.”

The BMJ reports: “She said that the conversations that had taken place between women who were having this treatment and their surgeons were ‘utterly inadequate’… [and] called on women to sue their surgeons for clinical negligence if they have experienced complications from mesh treatment.”

Meanwhile, Labour MP Owen Smith wrote for Politics Home this week…

Vaginal mesh is only one of many medical device scandals and our regulatory system is to blame

He writes: “The vaginal mesh story is a medical scandal that is only beginning to unfold in court-rooms and in women’s lives around the world. But the terrible truth is that it is just one of many such scandals, with metal on metal hips, PIP breast implants and faulty pacemakers just some of the more infamous recent examples… I’m glad that during the debate, the Health Minister acknowledged that commercial interests have been historically prioritised over patient safety in the regulation of medical devices, but the Government needs to go further by toughening up the licensing process and committing to a national registry of all devices to protect patients.”

You Don’t Look Sick: ‘My lungs are broken but people don’t think I am disabled’

Metro this week launched a new series, ‘You Don’t Look Sick’, exploring invisible illnesses. The first of these pieces tells the story of 32-year-old Kim Lam’s experience with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), a condition which causes long-term inflammation of the airways:

I have had people say things like “but you don’t look sick”. On one occasion, I had parked in a disabled spot in the shopping centre (with my disabled badge) and got a scathing remark from a young couple who were with their baby in a pram. The woman had retorted that those spaces “are for disabled people only”.

I was too shy at the time to speak up but my boyfriend at the time screamed back and asked if she had any idea what condition I had and told her she shouldn’t be judging people based purely on their looks.

The battle for lipoedema surgery: ‘I’m in constant pain’

Lipoedema is a painful and debilitating health condition that causes abnormal swelling and fat deposits on women’s legs and arms. Little is known about it, and it’s often misdiagnosed as obesity. The BBC spoke to two women about the difficulty of accessing surgery on the NHS.

And finally…

Breast Cancer Now is calling for women with a family history of breast cancer to be offered breast screening in their 30s. Research by scientists at the University of Manchester – funded by Breast Cancer Now – suggested screening women aged 35-39 would enable early detection and potentially prevent the cancer spreading.