To Bleed or Not To Bleed
Earlier this week, the FDA approved Lybrel, an oral contraceptive which can be used to completely stop a woman’s menstrual cycle. Unlike traditional birth control pills which produce a period-like bleeding once a month, Lybrel is designed to prevent women from bleeding at all, or at least until they stop taking the drug. The controversy surrounding medically-induced cessation of menstruation has been much discussed amongst feminists, health professionals, and others. Some commentators cheer it as Lybrel the Liberator—a knight in shining armor freeing oppressed maidens from the evils of cramps, bloating, and messiness. Proponents also argue that it will drastically reduce PMS symptoms, allowing women to better, and more consistently, function in the workplace, home, and community. It could also provide women with greater control over the timing of sexual relations.
On the other hand, some have expressed concern about the long-term physical effects of the medication, and the potentially negative message it sends to women (and men) about a very natural function of a woman’s body. Moreover, some denounce it as just one more way for men to pressure women into accommodating them sexually. Still others argue that menstruation is a key component to their understanding of themselves as women—a fundamental distinguisher between the sexes. Women are so emasculated already, if you take away menstruation, they say, the gray lines separating the genders will only be further blurred.
The idea that menstruation is a key component of our understanding of femininity seems strange to me. Perhaps this is because the essence of being female, or a woman, or a daughter of God, has never been closely connected to the blood, cramps, tampons, and pads that arrive in my bathroom every 27 to 29 days. While I’m not yet completely certain of how I derive my understanding of myself as a woman, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have anything to do with menstruation. True, at some far recess of my mind it is theoretically tied to fertility and the bearing of children. However, on a practical level, it’s mostly just an inconvenience, a bodily function I have to deal with more often than I’d like. I’m curious as to whether other women feel that menstruation informs their understanding of their femaleness, and if so, the reasons why.
Additionally, from a doctrinal perspective, I’ve been pondering on the potential religious or eternal purposes behind menstruation. While it is often fruitless to attempt to divine God’s motivations, I wonder if perhaps there is some purpose behind women being inconvenienced by (best case scenario) or suffering from (for those who experience heavy cramping, bleeding, bloating, or headaches) the process of menstruation for 25% of their adult lives? Is there something we are supposed to be learning from this? Is menstruation a punishment? Is it connected to the curse placed upon Eve in the garden? Maybe the cyclical shedding of blood is some type of symbol that will help us remember the blood that Christ shed for us (an obligatory monthly sacrament)? Or is it just supposed to be a monthly reminder that we should be bearing children and breastfeeding them, and not menstruating at all?
Painting: Red Canna, Georgia O’Keefe, 1923