MotherJones MJ93: Woman: the disease

Everybody knows the stereotype: when a man experiences stress on the job, his supervisor tells him to take a vacation. A woman is told to see a doctor. Crow’s feet on a man are often considered a sign of dignity or “aging with grace.” But on a woman they are an invitation to plastic surgery.

It’s almost as if the word “woman” is a medical diagnosis: being a woman is a disease just waiting to be treated. Women are the cash cows of medicine, since they generate hundreds of billions of dollars for the medical system. Some of the biggest medical scandals have been perpetrated on women: they have been given DES (diethylstilbestrol) and thalidomide and have endured assaults such as the Dalkon Shield, Toxic Shock Syndrome, and, most recently, breast implants.

Consider the hysterectomy, the second most frequently performed surgery in the United States, at double the rates of England and other European countries. Between 1985 and 1987, 11 percent of the two million hysterectomies performed were to remove life-threatening cancer; the rest were to treat conditions that might have been corrected by other means. By age sixty, about one out of three women in this country will have had a hysterectomy.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that hysterectomy rates are higher in communities with more doctors and hospitals–places like the wealthy suburbs of big cities. It’s a fact that private insurance pays more for the procedure than Medicaid, so doctors may be less likely to recommend a hysterectomy to a poor, uninsured woman. And interestingly, the hysterectomy rate in the South is almost double that of any other region in the country.

The rate of another frequent surgical procedure performed on women, cesarean sections, has risen to 23.5 percent in 1990 from 5.5 percent in 1970. Yet both the infant mortality rate and the number of women dying in childbirth held constant during that period. While a doctor may tell an expectant mother that either she or her baby is at high risk, many doctors are performing more C-sections because they fear being sued for negligence, want to speed the delivery, or have a financial incentive. Doctors charge an average of $7,826 for a C- section, or two-thirds more than for a vaginal birth.

Psychiatrists and psychologists also reap financial gains from women, who make up the majority of their patients. Additionally, the majority of tranquilizers are prescribed to treat women.

Along with all that, doctors are becoming glorified beauticians and are doing it in the name of science. And subspecialties are being created merely to direct the dollar flow, rather than to meet a medical need. Sports gynecology, for example, is a subspecialty that came into existence only after women started to jog.

American medicine continues to be dominated by men. Male doctors outnumber female doctors by five to one; the latest figures show 26,000 male gynecologists vs. 7,500 females. Sadly, even the great influx of women into doctoring, the more highly educated women in nursing, and the feminist awakenings of the last twenty years have had little effect on the trend. Women–and men–must demand accountability from the medical profession.