Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Choice, Fertility, and Menstrual Cycle Awareness

April 2nd, 2014 by Laura Wershler

Guest Post by Lisa Leger

Photos courtesy Lisa Leger

Posing while pregnant in my pro-choice T-shirt in 1993 was a political statement, one I made with a huge sassy grin on my face. When I recreated the pose recently on my daughter’s 21st birthday, I found it easy to reprise the grin. First take, in fact. My choice tee is well worn; it’s a house/jammy shirt that my daughter has seen me in her whole life. Little does she know that she’s had her nose wiped by a piece of Canadian history.

I bought the choice tee at a fundraiser in Toronto when the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was helping Canadian abortion rights crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler with legal expenses when he was forced to defend in court his practice of providing safe abortions in a free-standing clinic. At the time, abortion was legal in Canada, but only if approved by a Therapeutic Abortion Committee and performed in a hospital. I was 27 years old, fresh from university, and a legal abortion had allowed me to finish my degree unburdened by an unplanned pregnancy, but I supported fewer restrictions to access.

Like most twenty-somethings, I had a long history of contraceptive use. I’d tried the pill, an IUD, and even the rhythm method, a fuzzy grasp of which I probably had picked up in a public school health class. I had a rotten attitude about my fertility, saw it as a huge hassle, and had no interest whatsoever in becoming a mother. My social and political opinions about the right to reproductive choice were fully formed when I bought this T-shirt for the cause I so ardently supported.

I was 32 years old when I posed in it while pregnant. By then I’d been charting my menstrual cycles for enough years to have improved my attitude about fertility dramatically. I’d met Geraldine Matus in the late 80s and learned to use the Justisse Method for Fertility Awareness that she developed. It changed my life forever; not only did I gain body literacy, develop a healthy relationship with my cycling body, and break free from contraceptive drugs and devices forever, I also gained a cherished mentor in Geraldine, and a career path as a Justisse fertility awareness educator that has sustained and gratified me for the past 25 years.

I took that picture in my choice T-shirt in 1993 because, for me, it says “I’m choosing to be pregnant.” I grinned because it was my choice to have Clair; I wasn’t scared or forced or coerced into that pregnancy. It was entirely my free will to lend my body to the great task of having a child and I made that choice because of the healing that had gone on over the years of charting, coming into relationship with my body, and learning to appreciate the awesomeness of my pro-creative power. Now that my daughter is 21 years old, I think about the freedom and choices she has as a Canadian woman in 2014, and feel sadness for those who don’t have that choice. I reflect on what a shame it is that these battles over reproductive choice, human rights, access to birth control, stigma, and power seem never to be put to rest. On Clair’s birthday, I posed in my choice T-shirt for my family archives and for those who still do not have choice.

Lisa Leger is a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner (HRHP) and women’s health activist on Vancouver Island. She serves on the board of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

This Time With Feeling! Making the Menstrual-Reproductive Justice Connection

December 24th, 2012 by Chris Bobel

Rejection stings.

A couple weeks ago, I received  the following ‘thanks, but no’ to a  proposal I sent to a reproductive justice conference,

Dear Chris Bobel,

Thank you for submitting your proposal, “How Menstruation Matters to the Reproductive Justice Movement”…..Our staff has spent the last few months evaluating proposals and building an initial workshop list. We were inspired by the volume of quality proposals that we received. All of them helped us in the planning process.

 At this time, however, we are not accepting your proposal for the 2013 conference.

Ouch.

As I typically do, I immediately headed to the deep dark brooding place of self-recrimination. That’s where I go. But as I set afoot on this well-worn path to my special ugly place,  I did something I don’t usually do; I paused, lifted my head and looked around.

As I did, I wondered, if just maybe, the rejection was not the result of the deficits in my proposal, but rather, a reflection of the broken link between menstrual awareness and the broader movement for embodied autonomy.

In other words, maybe the rejection was not as much about me (and my failings) but more about the world around me, and ITS (meaning OUR)  failings as a culture to see how a certain bodily reality is part of a larger whole.  Maybe the fact that a team of progressive reproductive justice activists and scholars saying NO THANKS to an opportunity to make the essential linkages between the menstrual cycle across the lifespan and reproductive justice is an indication that WE still have SO MUCH WORK TO DO to help people see this crucial connection.

I know I am not alone in feeling like the spotted elephant on the Island of Misfit Toys (seasonal reference: DONE!). Sister menstrual warrior Laura Wershler recently wrote the following when I this blog post-in-progress:

Caring about menstruation and the menstrual cycle makes me almost a freak in the pro-choice world. I get ignored or criticized a lot because people don’t want to ask or answer some of the questions I keep trying to pose about choice around non-hormonal contraceptive methods. 

So what’s a freak to do? We could stamp our feet and curse those who don’t see what’s pretty obvious to us, but that won’t raise the awareness.

This is on us.

Yes. Rejection stings, but maybe this time, I can take something away far more productive than the usual self-flagellation. Maybe this time, I can take it in as a clarion call, a motivation for a deeper commitment to help others make the menstrual connection, to, spread the #menstruationmatters message (thanks again Laura Wershler).

This means more conference proposals (and a thicker skin for more rejections). More writing. More blogging. More teaching. More radio interviews. More everything.

Who’s with me?

 

Margaret Atwood’s Menstrual Dystopia

February 27th, 2012 by David Linton

The menstrual cycle has been of interest to novelists from time to time and some of their work has received critical attention by scholars, most notably in Dana Medoro’s Bleeding in America, a seminal study that assesses the menstrual elements in the novels of Faulkner, Pynchon, and Morrison (previously reviewed here).  But perhaps the novel that is devoted most completely to the social, political, religious, cultural and economic impact of disruptions in the healthy functioning of the menstrual cycle is Margaret Atwood’s 1985 depiction of a menstrual dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Now, 27 years after its publication, the novel resonates with relevance to the current circumstances of our lives.  As such, it deserves recognition along with those other prescient novels of a dysfunctional future, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984.

Atwood envisions a world in which, due to a combination of environmental disasters, most women have become incapable of conceiving, leading to the creation of a cadre of “handmaids” who still have normal menstrual cycles and who are assigned to the leaders (“Commanders”) of the nation to bear them children who are immediately turned over to their infertile wives.  They enact a weird form of surrogacy patterned after the story in Genesis of Rachel’s handmaid having sex with Jacob so that Rachel can have a child.  The handmaids (who do not have names of their own but instead are referred to as possessions of their Commanders with the prefix “of,” as in OfFred) have sex by lying between the legs of the Commander’s wife so as to pretend that the congress is “normal.”  The fiction is continued when a birth occurs with the wife simulating labor surrounded by other wives while the handmaid delivers the child elsewhere.

The novel is prescient on many levels.  Our own concerns with the potential effects of environmental contamination on reproduction are strikingly anticipated:

“The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. . . . Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers.  Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants. . . and the mutant strain of syphilis no mold could touch.” (143-144)

As a result, the birth rate plummets far below replacement level, schools are closed for lack of children and fertility becomes a rare commodity that is carefully controlled as women still capable of conceiving are doled out as special benefits to the rulers of the state.  All of this occurs in the context of a culture of religious fanaticism with a full complement of hypocrisy and brutality common to extremes of any stripe.

Key scenes are built around gynecological exams, menstrual anxiety, failed attempts at impregnation: all aspects of cycle management.  Every moment of the narrator’s life centers on her identity as a potential producer: “Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.” (95)

As we experience today’s resurgence of efforts to control or limit women’s reproductive options and the tangled skein of regulations, insurance restrictions, religious assertions, and political posturing, The Handmaid’s Tale makes for timely reading.

The Quiet Uterus?

November 7th, 2009 by Chris Bobel

Guest Post by Moira Howes, Trent University

Uterus Vase by The Plug and Stephanie Rollin

Uterus Vase by The Plug and Stephanie Rollin

Over thirty years ago, Roger V. Short argued that regular menstrual cycling is probably a health hazard and thus, we should try to “keep the ovaries and the female reproductive tract in a state of quiescence when reproduction is not desired” [1]

More recently, Timothy Rowe, Head of Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility, University of British Columbia, claims that “the pill keeps a woman’s reproductive organs quiet and healthy[2]
As a philosopher of science, I find the concept of a “quiescent” bodily organ fascinating, troubling and great fodder: there is nothing so tempting to a philosopher of science as a vague, unscientific and value-laden concept.

Short and Rowe use the concept of “quiescence” to describe a presumably defined state of the uterus, but the concept is vague. It’s also unscientific—it calls to mind the promises made for “stimulated” immune systems and “cleansed” livers at my local health food store. And, the quiescent uterus raises old value-laden associations between women and passivity. If the dormant, quiet, and weak uterus is healthy, is the active, energetic, and strong uterus unhealthy?

The quiescent concept also connects temptingly with another problematic concept: “incessant ovulation.”

Short refers to regular ovulation as “incessant ovulation” and an “incessant ovulation theory” has emerged in the last decade or so. Strictly speaking, “incessant” just means “uninterrupted.” But it has negative connotations that the terms “uninterrupted” and “regular” do not. We would not say “incessant ovulation is important for bone health,” but we would say that “regular ovulation is important for bone health.” Ovulation has been described as hard work and as causing wear and tear on the ovaries. Interestingly, we do not talk of spermatogenesis in terms of incessant activity, hard work, or wear and tear: the more prolific the testicular activity, the more energetic, virile and healthy the testicle.

A more specific reason I find the term “quiescent uterus” fascinating concerns my interest in the field of reproductive immunology. Surprisingly little work has been done on the immune defences of the human female reproductive and genital tracts (though immunologists like Alison Quayle, Charles Wira and John Fahey are starting to rectify matters).

Because relatively little is known about mucosal immune defences in the human female reproductive and genital tract—and about how the reproductive immune system also contributes to blood vessel development in the uterus, ovulation, construction of the maternal-fetal interface, and the growth and development of the fetus (to name a few of the more recently discovered immune activities)—it is easy to assume that the uterus just “does nothing” when it is not involved in reproduction. Taking into account these immunological activities, however, it is clear that the reproductive tract does things besides ovulate and gestate fetuses.

What happens immunologically when women take hormonal forms of contraception?

Are the immunological activities of the uterus “quieted” and thus improved? Or are they disrupted and unhealthy?

From an immunological perspective—not to mention social and other medical perspectives—I am concerned that the notion of quiescence may stall research and pose risks to women’s health.
I’d love to hear other ideas about the quiescent uterus.


[1] Short 1976, The Evolution of Human Reproduction. Proc R Soc Lond B 195, 21

[2] “Fertility: From Foe to Friend,” Kate Rae, Glow Magazine, November 2009, 68

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.