startling news: The latest threat to women's health isn't any of
the medical scandals you've been reading about -- not unnecessary
hysterectomies, not defective birth-control devices, not breast implants,
not those medical-research projects that fail to study women. No, the big
health risk facing American women today is feminism.
Or so say researchers working with rightwing think tanks, who have isolated a particular strain of radical, deconstructionist feminism now spreading from cultural-studies departments into the general population, distorting medical research, infecting our justice system, and causing mass hysteria.
trend was the theme of a February conference at the
National Press Club in Washington, D.C., called "Women's Health, Law, and
the Junking of Science."
The conference, put on by the conservative Independent Women's Forum, presented a series of expert panels to show how a nefarious network of feminist ideologues, public-interest research groups, and trial lawyers are politicizing science and jeopardizing women's health.
"Radical feminist academics and 'fellow travelers' are leading the flight from science and reason," said Noretta Koertge, a professor of the history and philosophy of science from Indiana University. Koertge gave a presentation using overheads that diagramed something she called "menstrual mathematics." This school of thought claims that women are put off by scientific experiments involving hard collisions, and are more attracted to fluids, she explained. She showed us an e-mail message from a teaching assistant in physics, asking whether there were any textbooks that covered wave theory before quantum mechanics, since that might appeal to women more.
Paul Gross, a professor emeritus of life sciences at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at Harvard, followed Koertge. Gross had overheads, too. He flashed a quote from an ecofeminist named Val Plumwood, saying that "rationalism is the key to the linked oppressions of women and nature in the West." He had another one from Jacques Derrida, saying something spurious about reality and the whole Western tradition. He had also downloaded a silly message posted by a graduate student on the Internet, and he had some pictures of New Age magazines touting miracle cures for AIDS and cancer.
All in all, pretty goofy stuff.
"There are questionable and indeed dubious arguments that underlie the study of science," Gross concluded gravely. "Women's studies is particularly fertile ground for the growth of these ideas. The teaching of patent nonsense can't fail to have an impact on the next generation of thinkers and leaders."
But deconstructionist theory, e-mail messages from addled graduate students, and a bunch of loopy New Age magazines hardly add up to an all-out assault on medical science.
Don't be fooled, warned Christina Hoff Sommers, the author of Who Stole Feminism and a member of the Independent Women's Forum. "Some of you may think, OK, women's studies departments are anti-rational, but women have other sources of information," she said. But unfortunately, she explained, the liberal media, influenced by feminists, are "far too eager to portray women as victims of gender bias," and often report distorted "advocacy research" on women's health issues. "Faced with the growing strength of the anti-science-and-reason movement, we can't afford to be passive," Hoff Sommers declared.
During a break
in the conference, I chatted with a white-haired man in a
tweed jacket sitting next to me -- Fredrick Goodwin, the former director of
the National Institute of Mental Health, and a professor of psychiatry at
George Washington University. Goodwin said he thought the conference was
"excellent" and "long overdue."
"I'm interested in victimology," he said. "I treat depression, and I've seen a lot of patients who are products of these women's studies programs. The radical feminist movement is fostering depression in women -- fears of the environment, somatization [excessive preoccupation with the body], paranoid thinking ... If you took feminism as described here today and applied it to an individual, you'd say that's a person who needs help."
The most riveting presentation of the day was on breast implants. Marcia Ormbsy, a very young-looking, blond plastic surgeon from Annapolis, Maryland, showed slides of some of her patients.
"I received hundreds of calls from women across the nation who were ready to consign themselves literally to insane asylums," they were so upset when they heard that breast implants might be linked to serious health problems, she said. "There is a lot of guilt and fear in these patients. Society already is telling them they shouldn't change their bodies," and then the news about implants hit.
Ormsby showed a slide with the words communications effectiveness, media, and, underneath, in big capital letters, SENSATIONALISM.
"The implant crisis started with Connie Chung," she said, "and it quickly became headline news." She showed an overhead with the words Headline News.
Women have been unnecessarily terrified by media reports about problems with breast implants, she said. The FDA has even taken implants off the market, pending the results of new research. Yet, said Ormsby, "it seems there's no increase in autoimmune disease. That's fact. That's science."
(Actually, the jury is still out on the relationship between breast implants and autoimmune disease, since the epidemiological studies will take a long time to complete. What's certain is that women have had problems with breast implants that leak and rupture, and many of these patients claim to have become sick from the silicone that spilled into their bodies.)
Silicone is found in such commonplace items as hairspray, Ormsby pointed out, and in other medical devices.
"Where else is silicone found?" she asked. "Penile implants. There is no device more fraught with complications than penile implants!" Ormsby said adamantly. "And yet we don't hear about that." I accidentally caught the eye of my new friend the psychiatrist, who was listening intently. "Look at the men who have penile implants," said Ormsby. "They break all the time. Why? Because they're subjected to force. Yet these men have never been brought up on Face the Nation with Connie Chung."
Then Ormsby showed a picture of one of her patients with very small breasts. "This woman nursed three children," she said, yet "she looked like a boy scout."
"She was typical of patients I see in her difficulty in dealing with her body image," Ormsby continued. "These are women who are very embarrassed to dress in the gym."
The next slide was the "after" picture. "Here is her result," said Ormsby. Not only did the patient have big, round breasts, she had a terrific tan, interrupted only by the bright white outline of a bikini top, which highlighted the medically relevant region. "You can see she's been wearing her bathing suit and going to the beach," Ormsby pointed out.
My neighbors in the audience and I were duly impressed. The woman next to me looked over and smiled. But then came the bad news:
"What do I have to offer this woman today?" Ormsby asked. "Now my only option is saline implants --for this very, very thin woman -- which ripple and hang like a bag of fluid."
I shuddered. The psychiatrist pursed his lips.
If we care about patients such as hers, Ormsby said, "we have to learn to empathize and reflect to them what their problems are, because that's the only way we can get to the meat of the problem."
And what is the meat of the problem, exactly? The logical leap from deconstructionist feminist theory to FDA regulations and breast implants was a little hard to follow.
speaker at the conference was Marcia Angell, executive editor of
The New England Journal of Medicine, and author of the book Science on
Trial: The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Implant
Case. Angell had little to say about feminism or the liberal media. But
she said she believes that the FDA made the wrong decision when it took
silicone breast implants off the market in 1992.
"There was no evidence one way or another about the safety of implants" when the FDA made its decision, she said. Yet, in what Angell called a "backward series of events," in April 1994 women who claimed to be harmed by implants were awarded the largest class-action settlement in history. (The settlement has since fallen apart.) It wasn't until June 1994, Angell said, that the first rigorous, scientific study of implants came out of the Mayo Clinic. It found no link between implants and connective-tissue disease.
(In her book, Angell concedes that the size of the Mayo Clinic study was so small that it did not rule out the possibility of a tripling of the incidence of autoimmune disease among women with implants. Still, she asserts that there is no reason to believe implants cause the disease.)
"This controversy exposes the problem with our runaway tort system," Angell concluded.
Lucinda Finley, another panelist, a law professor from the State University of New York who specializes in product liability and women's health, respectfully disagrees with Angell.
"There are really two competing philosophies here," Finley said. "The FDA says don't market a product until it is proven safe and effective. The opposing view is that we should go ahead and market a product until it's proven unsafe. I think many consumers prefer the philosophy that we shouldn't market products until we know they're safe."
But most conference participants were not so interested in the fine points of Finley's philosophical debate. They had bigger fish to fry -- namely, the feminist, anti-science conspiracy.
"Behind and below the world of scientific evidence is a world of witchcraft: a hard and potent term, but it applies here," said one of the panelists, David Murray, a red-haired, bearded man with a sonorous voice. Murray got his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago. He now works for the Statistical Assessment Service, a conservative group "dedicated to improving media coverage of scientific and statistical information."
Murray told us to close our eyes, and began to whisper into the microphone: "Imagine it is a hot, sweltering day. You go to the refrigerator and find that all you have is a single lemon . . . . You cut open the lemon . . . you see the drops of juice glistening on the rind . . . you lift it and squeeze a few drops onto your tongue."
He had us open our eyes. "Many of you may have felt a tingling of the salivary glands as I told that story," he said.
Just as he had managed to induce a physical response in us by talking about the lemon, feminists and the media have managed to persuade people that they are suffering the symptoms of strange diseases, he suggested.
Murray listed some of these imaginary ills: "Gulf War Syndrome, Agent Orange Syndrome, and symptoms experienced by women who happen to have silicone breast implants."
Not only are the ailments suffered by women with breast implants imaginary, "it is a myth that women are second-class citizens in medical research," said Sally Satel, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist who has written about politics and science for The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and other publications.
Congress made a big mistake when it ordered the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to include women and minorities in medical trials, Satel said. "Politically correct" medical trials are more expensive, and they dilute research by requiring scientists to split their studies into cumbersome subgroups.
According to Satel, contrary to popular belief and federal decree, women have not been excluded from scientific studies of heart disease and other ailments. In fact, she says, women have for a long time made up at least half of all medical-research subjects. To prove it, Satel displayed a big chart showing that since 1983, there have been approximately the same number of all-male and all-female medical studies, and a much higher number of co-ed studies. "Here are the 1994 numbers from the NIH," Satel said. "That year there were 1,002,000 subjects under study by NIH-funded researchers and 52 percent were women: 52 percent! Can't get much fairer than that."
the question-and-answer period, a woman in the audience got up to
object to some of Satel's claims. Phyllis Greenberger of the Society for the
Advancement of Women's Health Research said that, until Congress pressured
the NIH to start counting how many women were in studies, there were no
numbers available. "The 52 percent she quoted for 1994 was right, but the
fact is we had no data before that. . . ."
Greenberger began to list other objections to Satel's presentation, but Christina Hoff Sommers interrupted: "I'm sorry, but you are not asking a question and no one can hear you."
"Can someone give me a microphone?" Greenberger asked.
"No," said Hoff Sommers.
The audience rebelled. "Let her talk!" a man shouted.
"Give her the microphone!" a woman called out.
"No, I'm not going to give her the microphone," Hoff Sommers snapped.
"They already have the microphone!"
Hoff Sommers called on Sally Satel to respond.
"How can she respond when there hasn't been a question yet?" a man in the audience demanded.
"All right," Hoff Sommers said testily, turning back to Greenberger. "Can you formulate a question?"
Greenberger did, although it was difficult to hear her. Satel responded that the answer to the question should be clear from her chart.
Afterwards, there was a lot of grumbling. "That really should not have happened," Rickie Silverman, a member of the Independent Women's Forum, said to another Forum member in the buffet line at lunch.
The moderator of the next panel, David Murray, alluded to the scuffle.
"Our best service is to encourage open debate," he said. "We've certainly tried to put together the panels that way."
But, in fact, there was almost no debate at the conference. The lone dissenting voice on the final, summary panel was Lucinda Finley's.
Finley defended the FDA's decision to suspend the sale of breast implants, and said it wasn't fair to claim that breast implants don't cause disease, since scientists have not finished studying the problem yet.
The eight other panelists started passing the microphone back and forth, arguing with Finley about whether the scientists who link breast implants to disease are spouting "junk."
As Finley was talking, a tight-lipped Mona Charen, the conservative pundit moderating the final panel, asked, "Can someone get the microphone away from her?"
Finley was dismayed. "I find it ironic," she told me. "They are talking about junk science, and yet they're taking a study that says the question hasn't been answered yet, and using it to claim that the scientific issues about breast implants are completely settled. To me that's bad science."
The irony was not lost on Phyllis Greenberger, either, who talked to me in the hallway briefly after Christina Hoff Sommers shut her up.
"I think what they did to me really showed something," Greenberger said. "If you're justified in your facts, you shouldn't be afraid of hearing the other side. . . . Here they are spending a whole day on 'junk science,' and then they put up a chart you can't see unless you're in the front row, and it's like those charts the politicians use--it looks good, but is it true?"
Greenberger, who is on the Presidential advisory council for HIV/AIDS, hastened to add that her group, the Society for the Advancement of Women's Health Research, is "not a feminist organization in terms of the way they define feminism."
"This stuff at the universities is maybe garbage--they're taking feminism too far," she says. "But there's ample evidence that women haven't been studied enough in medical research. I wouldn't put that in the same category as victimization."
Women's Forum's whole mission, however, is to point out just
how pervasive and damaging feminist ideology and "the politics of
victimhood" really are.
For the last few years, the group's members have been busy attacking everything from affirmative action to the Violence Against Women Act to the notion that women have not achieved pay equity with men. The idea that women are not yet equal is itself "victimology," according to the group's press kit, which proclaims: "Since 1992, the Independent Women's Forum has been taking on the old feminist establishment-and winning."
Through opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines, appearances on pundit shows, and conferences like this one, the members of the IWF are out to spread their conservative views.
Denouncing "junk science" is their latest crusade. And they repeat the term so often it becomes a deafening drum beat. Articles about the problem of "junk science"--that is, a broad array of scientific research used by public-interest groups and plaintiffs in product-liability suits-have turned up recently in The New Republic, Scientific American, ABC News, and, of course, in newspaper columns by members of the Independent Women's Forum.
"What's starting to happen is that this term, 'junk science,' is being thrown around all the time," Finley says. "People are calling scientists who disagree with them purveyors of 'junk.' But what we're really talking about is a very normal process of scientific disagreement and give-and-take. Calling someone a 'junk scientist' is just a way of shutting them up."
"It's a pejorative term mainly used by industry and its friends to try to trivialize evidence about the risks of medical devices, drugs, and other consumer products," says Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. Wolfe has been denounced as a "junk scientist" for promoting the idea that women have been harmed by breast implants. "But the public is right to be concerned about products that have caused harm, or haven't been adequately tested," he says.
By promoting the idea of "junk science," the Independent Women's Forum is doing just what its members accuse the much-maligned "feminist establishment" of doing -- trying to silence disagreement and promote an ideological agenda that could warp science and public policy.
But, of course, to accuse them of that would only be the typical, paranoid feminist response.
Albion Monitor May 10, 1997 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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