Topic: Why is women’s health still so under-researched?
For most of my career, I’ve paid close attention to women’s health research. And I can tell you unequivocally that—even in 2021—there’s still nowhere near enough research when it comes to women’s bodies and health outcomes. This is a major problem, and despite some progress over the years, there’s still much work to be done.
We live in a world where about one in six couples struggle to conceive, and yet we know relatively little about the female-assigned body. To be fair, we weren’t always in such a fertility crisis, so the lack of research wasn’t as pronounced. Before the 2000s, women were more likely to “settle down” and have kids at an earlier age, and infertility issues simply weren’t as common. There was less urgency to research infertility—and far less to research the fertile population. Now that more women are having their first kids in their thirties than in their twenties, there’s an immediate need to understand more about infertility treatments and what can be done in the fertile timeline to get ahead of the problems in the first place.
But the issue here is much deeper than academia and research initiatives failing to keep pace with recent shifts in society. I’m a big believer that in order to solve any problem, we need to understand the foundational issues causing the problem in the first place. Only then can we start to create real change and better outcomes.
So, first and foremost: Why is women’s health so under-researched?
To start, it’s important to understand that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) excluded females of “child-bearing potential” from clinical trials from 1977 through 1993. This even extended to mice. For 16 years, though, plenty of data was collected on the impact of various drugs and clinical trials on cisgender males.
The cited rationale for this was that female and male bodies were generally the same and that hormonal fluctuations, due to menstrual cycles, would complicate the analysis. That reasoning is not only contradictory but insufficient.
Researchers were also concerned that experimenting on reproductive-age females would hurt their fertility. Looking past this underlying assumption that anyone with ovaries automatically desires having children, it’s a worthy goal to try to spare people any damage to their reproductive health. However, the expense at which it came—neglecting people with ovaries from research altogether—did more harm than help.
But what about the mice? Even when it came to research on rodent subjects, many believed that a female mouse’s estrous cycles (in other words, mice periods) would lead to complications for data analysis.
As with any form of systemic discrimination, this exclusion didn’t end with the change in policy that came in 1993 when the restrictions were finally lifted. Rather, the dismissal of female participation lingered over time—and created the vacuum of data and outcomes that we still face today.
An important point in all of this: The reversal of the FDA policy came about in 1993, largely because of the influence of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. Representation always matters.
Now, while considering the supposed overcomplicated nature of women’s bodies, think about the last time you said the words “menstruation” or “vagina” aloud. Not a lot, right?
Topic Discussed: Why is women’s health still so under-researched?