Back in the 1980’s, I read a magazine article in Vogue about a research clinic in the US which attempted to study the possible applications of RU-486 (the “abortion pill”) in treating breast cancer. The results were promising. The research was shut down due to anti-abortion protests. For some companies, the desire not to be thought of as baby killers simply outweighed their concern for saving women’s lives. Other companies remained committed to the breast cancer research no matter what the protestors threatened, but couldn’t obtain sufficient quantities of the drug for study in the US, because the protestors had succeeded in making the drug very difficult to come by in the US.
Plus, the anti-abortion faction in the US is very powerful and well-funded. Let’s face it: if anyone could shut down a mega-powerful American pharmaceutical company, my money would be on these guys. Don’t get me wrong: I respect the views and the dedication of anti-abortionists. I just question a lot of their methods and priorities. In causing the shutdown of this research, they weren’t saving the unborn: they were squashing a potential life-saver for some of the born.
I was a teenager at the time, and I couldn’t understand the problem: didn’t the protestors understand that all sorts of medications can cause miscarriages as a side effect? How could anyone object to studying anything that might save the lives of women, just because the same drug can be used for another purpose they dislike? I mean, let’s say you have a moral objection to using anti-depressants. Would you try to shut down research into an anti-depressant’s coincidental ability to treat, say, leukemia? Or maybe the point here is that I should be asking about testicular cancer, or prostate. If RU-486 had demonstrated a potential to treat those things, would the anti-abortion crowd have been as determined to shut the research down?
More disturbing to me was the fact that I never saw wider reporting on this issue: just Vogue’s story. That was the end of my conditioned belief that the press existed to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, to disseminate information we can’t obtain for ourselves. The press, I began to understand, existed to further certain corporate interests.
I had my own brush with “Better you die than have sex” when I developed polycystic ovaries as a teenager. One in four women will have this condition at some point in her life. The cure espoused by virtually every OB-GYN is the birth control pill – proven in clinical trials to reduce ovarian cysts. Left untreated, these cysts can lead to ovarian cancer – which remains undetectable until it’s too late to save your life. Do you think my parents’ insurance offered to cover the birth control pill for non-contraceptive use in treating me? Hell, no. If my family couldn’t afford to pay for the pill out of pocket, it was better I risk death than the insurance company be obliquely associated with promoting contraception. That was the end of my conditioned belief that the medical industry was based on caring rather than money and their public relations with groups powerful enough to affect their funding.
The insurance companies’ stated reasoning for why they cover Viagra but not birth control pills has been that they can only support the use of medications in treating disorders, and pregnancy is not a disorder. Erectile dysfunction is. The problem with that logic is that insurance companies still weren’t covering the pill even when it was clearly being used to treat a disorder. They also didn’t cover it for women for whom pregnancy would have been life-threatening.
Nothing much has changed since then. My current PPO does offer coverage for the pill, which reduces your monthly cost to a co-pay, or you can use their tri-monthly refill program for better discounts, so that’s an improvement, as long as it lasts. My cost is about $70 per month, and my primary reason for being on the pill remains non-contraceptive.
And the US has never done any significant research on RU-486 for its non-abortive usages, leaving that research to France and the UK. Here’s an article telling where things stood in 1991, and here’s the latest from ABC News: British researchers have remade RU-486 into a contraceptive pill that “could reduce the risk of breast cancer, thrombosis and heart disease”. Of course, that doesn’t mean the FDA will approve it, even if it passes reasonable safety trials. They may instead concern themselves primarily with how it might impact teenage sexuality, as they did in evaluating Plan B.
And in any case, none of this helps all the women who died of breast cancer while this research and development wasn’t getting done.
If you want to get even more angry or depressed about this topic, go read the inserts on any pharmaceuticals you have at home. You’ll quickly discover that the human trials for virtually any FDA-approved drug are conducted almost exclusively on young white men. For those of you thinking I’m crazy to be concerned that TV is developed exclusively for that demographic, this is why: the entertainment culture is just a microcosm of our entire white-male-centered culture. If a drug doesn’t harm young white men*, it’s good to go as far as the FDA is concerned. Unless it might potentially encourage women to have sex, which it is apparently the FDA’s mandate to prevent. Who knew?
*Except birth control pills. Those they test on women.