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Home / Health & Wellbeing / Opinion: Do we need an overhaul in our attitude to women’s health?

Opinion: Do we need an overhaul in our attitude to women’s health?

The debate around reproductive rights rages on with the news that a referendum on the Eighth Amendment may be taking place next year. It has led to conversations on the broader issue of healthcare for women, and whether women’s health issues are being taken seriously in our society overall.
It’s important to start by saying this isn’t a straightforward criticism of medical practice in regards to women’s health concerns. When dealing with women’s health, often it is our own attitudes as women that lead to us not pressing issues around our reproductive, physical and mental health. Take periods. We know that every woman experiences their monthly cycle differently, but at a societal level we have always deemed the period as being a ‘curse’ and our own cross to bear.

That means when we do experience problems with fluctuations in hormone levels, pain, heavy and irregular bleeding, or issues with contraception, we don’t trust our judgement and are perhaps too quick to accept that this is our lot as women, rather than seeking to improve our situation, or investigating if the symptoms are a sign of a bigger underlying problem.

If we were experiencing the same level of discomfort or irregularity with another part of our body, would we be so ready to accept it? One might remember the response to the trials of the first male contraceptive injection – the collective groan and guffaw when the trial was halted due to participants experiencing adverse symptoms such as mood swings, acne, and a loss of libido, a story familiar we’re sure to almost every woman who uses contraceptive medication. Instead of mocking these complaints, it should have raised serious questions about what our expectations of our reproductive health experience should be throughout our lives. The men taking part in the trial were absolutely right to flag up the irregularities and for medical practitioners to stop and improve the medication. It’s just telling that they felt able to complain about these symptoms!

‘Are you sure you’re not overreacting?’
There may also be some problems in treating mental health issues in women, which are almost the opposite to that of men. Men are failing to have their mental health taken seriously due to societal expectations on them to be strong and emotionally resilient, leading to the problem becoming hidden, often until it becomes critical and life threatening. Women are conversely more likely to be expected to be emotional, and this is often blamed on hormones or a general lack of resilience in life. The severity can be easily dismissed by the sufferer themselves, and those around them. Even more worryingly, mental health issues can also be diagnosed where there are none when women report physical problems with their health.

According to a UK report, ‘Informed Choice? Giving women control of their healthcare’, which surveyed 2,600 women on general practitioner care and diagnosis of conditions including endometriosis and poly-cystic ovary syndrome, there is a reluctance to take the word of women who voice their complaints and investigate them thoroughly. Many reported feeling dismissed or treated like a hypochondriac when discussing the often extreme pain and alarming symptoms they were experiencing. Some even reported being prescribed with medication for depression and stress instead. Questions need to be asked about why it is seemingly taking so long for women to be diagnosed with conditions such as PCOS, when such conditions are not extremely rare.

Pregnancy and the sidelining of women
Here in Ireland, there are even more serious concerns around care during pregnancy, birth and access to abortion. Many of these concerns are due to questions around the presence of the Eighth Amendment in the constitution, and high profile cases concerning women and consent and care during labour.

A particular damning example of this is the Survivors of Symphysiotomy. Doctors have a legal obligation to seek consent for surgical procedures, but this was alleged to have been overlooked for a number of women who were subjected to symphysiotomy. Symphysiotomy involved the cutting or breaking of the pelvis during a difficult or dangerous birthing situation to allow more room for the baby to pass. The procedure was carried out on approximately 1,500 women during the 1980s, and Ireland was the only country at this time to continue with the practice. A lengthy campaign by survivors claimed that these procedures took place instead of Caesarean section due to ideological preference, and that they were performed without providing proper information or opportunity to consent. In 2016 the state awarded a total of €34million in compensation to 399 of these women, many of whom were left with permanent physical disabilities and incontinence.

These cases are the extreme, but there are a number of more minor ways that women are left out of decisions regarding their own bodies during birth, often with lasting physical effects. For example, how many women do you know who only found out that they had had an episiotomy after the event?

Then we have the issue of restrictions on reproductive rights in Ireland. Many who argue for the moral need to have rights restricted in the constitution ignore the need for informed choices to be made available in scenarios ranging from fatal foetal abnormality to rape, abuse and suicide. The issue once again comes down to trust – do we trust women to know their bodies? Do we trust them to understand procedures and conditions when the information is made available? Do we believe that as individuals we have the right to have our concerns and consent heard by professionals who are tasked with providing healthcare? In all areas of healthcare, we need to examine our collective attitudes and ask why we treat certain areas as any different simply because they only apply to women.

Article by: Kayleigh Ziolo


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