Feminism and Health: Our Bodies are not Testing Grounds

Women, transgender and non-binary people's relationships with the medical system have historically been fraughtMany of them have left medical appointments feeling unheard, belittled, humiliated or like they are prone to hyperbole. 

In order to change our collective relationship, interaction and engagement with the medical system to serve rather than hurt, it is important to understand why our relation to medicine has been problematic for us. This piece will illustrate the ‘why’ through the lens of women’s experiences. However, transgender and nonbinary people face a multitude of additional healthcare issues. In order to do this topic justice, I will consider it more in-depth in a subsequent post.

Image Description: Photo of a nurse taking someone's blood pressure. The photo is taken from above and set against a light blue background. Both of the nurse's arms are outstretched, while only one of the patients is. The nurse is holding the patient's elbow in their left hand and squeezing the pump with their right. The patient is wearing a white, long sleeve shirt and black nail polish. On the right-hand side of the photo, you can see the blood pressure monitor and a glass of water. On the left-hand side of the photo is a clipboard with medical forms attached, facing the patient. A black pen and stethoscope are rested on top of it. 

Women, in particular, are statistically more likely to seek out medical services than men. They are less likely to die within five years due to a diagnosable medical condition, despite having perceived poorer health in comparison to their male counterparts. Superficially, it appears women, as consumers of medical services, should have better outcomes as a result of their more consistent engagement.

But this is subjectively and demonstrably untrue.

While women are more aware of medical problems and more attuned to symptoms than men, they are more likely to be treated worse by medical professionals. The ‘doctor knows best’ mentality, teeming with stereotypes about the irrational and hysterical woman, can make women feel as if they are incapable of making decisions in their own best interests.

Granted, regardless of how a person feels, we seek medical opinions because we are not necessarily the best judge of whether the symptoms we have are benign or whether we should start looking into funeral insurance.

Additionally, when something is ‘broken’ we want to know how to fix it. But given the impossibility of a singular person knowing everything, we transfer the responsibility of understanding some things to experts. These experts, who learn the ins and outs of their chosen career path, can then hypothetically explain the meanings of symptoms to us laymen in digestible soundbites.

Medical doctors are archetypal experts and people have been conditioned to trust them. Further, medical doctors are a special kind of expert that can fix one of the most valuable human goods each of us possess: our health. But the esteem afforded this profession, along with our quasi-religious faith in it, combined with the over-inflated egos of some of its members, has generated an enormous human cost. Unfortunately, women and other vulnerable person’s bodies litter medical science’s battlegrounds.

History provides us many examples of doctors behaving unethically. They’ve used unknowing and unconsenting patients as guinea-pigs and made claims about the safety of a drug, or procedure, which did not match observable outcomes in patients.

Worse still, subjects of unethical medical experimentation and practices are more often vulnerable populations; children, pregnant women, the poor, uneducated and non-white who are, at best, coerced into the role of lab rat under the guise of ‘healthcare’. At worst they are unknowing and unconsenting participants used for the sake of medical science.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the drug thalidomide, touted as a way to manage anxiety, insomnia, tension and gastrointestinal distress, was additionally sold as a morning sickness cure for pregnant women. It was available over the counter in some countries, it was considered so safe. Thalidomide may have reduced morning sickness, but it caused horrendous birth defects and physical abnormalities in the babies born to mothers who, trusting the medical profession, used the drug in the belief it would not harm their child.  

In 1987, in New Zealand, the Cartwright Inquiry was set up to determine if those who undertook research into cervical cancer between 1955 and 1976 purposefully withheld information about positive cervical screening exams for the need of the study. The inquiry found the researchers had acted unethically and put patients at unreasonable and unnecessary risk. It also revealed other unethical practices, such as taking cervical smears of newborn babies without parental consent and using anaesthetised women to practice vaginal examinations and IUD insertions without their permission.

Image Description: Photo shows three male surgeons in an operating theatre. Two of the surgeons in the background have their heads down, concentrating on the surgery. The third surgeon, in the foreground of the image, is reaching across a tray of medical equipment including operating scissors, syringe and a jug of water, to pick up a medical dressing.

More recently, transvaginal mesh products were used frequently in the surgical management of pelvic organ prolapse (when one organ in the pelvis slip down from its normal position) and urinary incontinence. Specialists would urge female patients to undergo the procedure rather than try non-invasive treatments to manage symptoms. As many as 14 in every 100 women treated with transvaginal mesh experienced mesh erosion causing infection, chronic pain, difficulty urinating and pain during sexual intercourse. A statistics degree is not necessary to know that adverse outcomes for 14 in every 100 persons is not a medically effective or safe procedure. In late 2017 in Australia, transvaginal mesh was removed from the list of therapeutic goods by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Thankfully our current medical profession responds quickly and proactively to unethical medical experimentation, practices and use of products that have not been rigorously tested for safety. The once ‘god-like’, infallible doctor has been replaced by collaborative health researchers. Yet there are lasting impacts for many women resulting from reckless, unethical and misleading practices by those they entrusted for help.

Why have women been the subjects of morally objectionable behaviours by medical professionals?
So much of our historical understanding of diseases and their presentation in human bodies is through the lens of ‘male bodies’. And historically, diseases that present in women were not well understood because they were not researched thoroughly. Further, normal bodily features and functions such as menstruation, vulva shape, and vaginal discharge were medicalised or discussed in hushed tones, teaching women to feel ashamed for no reason. I cannot begin to imagine the mistreatment and misunderstanding a transgender person would face as they navigate the health system.

So, why do women continue to seek out medical opinions to a greater extent than men? Medical dominance and the ‘doctor knows best’ mentality that forms the core dynamic of healthcare, more broadly construed, inhibited women from learning and understanding their own bodies and bodily processes. This practice is incredibly disempowering. It allows questions regarding normalcy and fears of being abnormal to fester and grow in women.

We still live in an extremely unequal world when it comes to health care and health outcomes. The idea of creating a contraceptive pill for people with penises has been on the medical table since the introduction of the contraceptive pill for people with uteruses. Still, women and other people with uteruses continue to bear the burden of procreating responsibly. 

Image Description: Photo shows a close-up of a person's hand, with the palm facing upwards and fingers slightly curled, holding some white, pink, and blue pills. The nails on the hand are painted black and the person is wearing a black shirt, which is pulled up above their wrist. The pills, of which there are various kinds (pink ones, purple and blue ones, round ones, capsules, red ones) spill out onto the surface on which the hand is resting.

And because nothing is foolproof and unexpected/ unwanted pregnancies occur, women and other people with uteruses are still not able to access safe, affordable abortions. Further, abortion has morphed from a health issue to a political one. As recently as two weeks ago, Australia refused to act as a signatory on the UN’s statement calling for safe access to abortion.

Women have an inalienable right to bodily autonomy. Women’s bodies are not testing grounds, nor should they be politicised by privileged white men in positions of power for political gain. Until all the requisite medical freedoms and rights are given to women and the redistribution of burdens is fairly ascribed, all women remain unfree.

By: Rachael Thurston

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sydney Feminists. Our Blogger and Tumblr serve as platforms for a diverse array of women to put forth their ideas and explore topics. To learn more about the philosophy behind TSF’s Blogger/ Tumblr, please read our statement here: https://www.sydneyfeminists.org/a 


  1. The opposite effect, known as "masked hypertension," can also occur—some people have normal blood pressure readings at the doctor's office but high blood pressure most of the rest of the time.

    Wrist Blood Pressure Monitor


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