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Prozac Nation
Prozac Nation (2001)

Hypothetical babies are being prioritised over real women’s pain

Young women, non-binary and AFAB people in the UK are being denied everything from antidepressants to cluster headache medication solely because they are of ‘childbearing’ age

“When I told my doctor I was trying to conceive, they immediately stopped [prescribing me] SSRIs,” Laura Teare-Jones, host of the podcast My Hormones, My Health, says. “I was on them for my PMDD and was taken off them because of the damage it could do to my baby, who at this point did not exist.”

PMDD stands for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. It is a chronic disorder where a person’s menstrual cycle significantly and negatively impacts their mental health before the start of their period. Just this year, BMC Psychiatry found that 34 per cent of people with PMDD have attempted suicide due to its debilitating symptoms. As a result, antidepressants are something people like Laura need to function in this world, but this wasn’t considered by her doctors when they heard that she was trying to conceive. Instead, Laura was abruptly taken off her antidepressants, a medication that many need to be weaned off due to its side effects. She was not provided with an alternative to deal with her chronic condition. 

Women’s pain has always been treated differently by doctors. Studies have shown that women with severe pain will suffer longer in emergency rooms, that their pain is taken less seriously, and that the number of misdiagnoses of common conditions is far higher among women. Endometriosis takes an estimated seven-and-a-half years and 10 doctor visits to diagnose. Laura is just one of many women, non-binary and AFAB people who are dismissed, deprioritised and denied medical care by healthcare professionals because of their childbearing status in the UK and around the world.

Over in the US, it’s been a particularly high-profile issue in the wake of the overturning of Roe v Wade. Since July, The Washington Post and MSNBC have reported that several disabled and chronically ill people with conditions including lupus, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis have been denied access to vital medication because it’s seen as aiding and abetting abortion. 

Just last month, Tara Rule went viral on Tiktok after she was denied highly effective medication for her painful and chronic cluster headaches simply because she is of childbearing age. Rule – who lives in New York, a state where abortion is supposedly protected – was told by her neurologist that the medication they refused to prescribe her could cause birth defects. She recorded their encounter and explained that she did not plan on having children, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. The risks and possible endangerment to her hypothetical foetus were more important than her real and tangible pain.

While abortion in the UK is legal (although still a criminal offence in some cases due to an 1861 act), many women and AFAB people are still having their speculative future child’s wellbeing prioritised above their own. Law student Chloe tells Dazed that her endometriosis treatment is centred around her childbearing status. “Doctors won’t consider anything but treatment with the contraceptive pill until I am actively looking to get pregnant or surpass the age of 30.” 

Even though the pill somewhat helped with their symptoms, it also increased their depression and anxiety. When they enquired about alternative treatments such as a hysterectomy (a surgical procedure to remove the womb) or laparoscopic surgery, they were told that, because of their age, “other treatments would be seen as invasive and likely impact my ability to have children, so it would not be considered.”

Like Chloe, Jordan*, a non-binary artist, was prescribed various different contraceptive pills to treat their endometriosis. “I’ve tried every kind of birth control the GPs have prescribed to ‘regulate’ my cycle, which resulted in a blocked blood vessel in my lungs.” When Jordan expressed that they wanted a hysterectomy to end their pain and mental anguish, they were refused and met with dismissive remarks, “you’re young; you might change your mind!” Jordan says that the pain of their condition and the dismissal they have faced has resulted in them feeling suicidal. 

@pogsyy TW: mentions of un/ a1ive, r***. This is not okay. I suffer with my disability everyday. How are we prioritizing religion over healthcare? What will I do? I feel so alone. #ehlersdanlos #clusterheadaches #migranes #roevwade #womensrights #uterus #malpratice #unitedstates #chronicpain #chronicillness #disabled #disability #help #desparate #medical #medicine #medicaltrauma #ptsd ♬ original sound - Tara Rule

“Fundamentally, people need to understand that our bodies are not just vessels for babies,” says Emily Holloway, therapist and co-founder of the PMDD Collective which works to raise awareness and support people impacted by the disorder. Holloway says that “radical change” is needed to combat what she calls the “patriarchal medical system” in this country. “I think that starts with education, in medical schools and lower schools.” 

In the US, Rule has started a petition to end doctors’ abilities to deny treatment to patients for being of “childbearing age.” Talking to Jezebel she said, “We need to reprimand any physician or insurance company that chooses to prioritise a hypothetical life that does not exist over the well-being of a suffering human being who actually does.”

Whether denying women and AFAB people medication that would ease their pain or removing their access to legal abortion, it ultimately all boils down to not allowing women to make decisions about their own bodies. Attacks on abortion are never just about abortion; it’s all about control. When you control reproduction, you get to decide who can parent and who can not, who gets criminalised and who does not, who has bodily autonomy and who does not. As Jessie Kindig, editor of the book We Organise to Change Everything: Fighting for Abortion Access and Reproductive Justice said: the anti-abortion movement and attacks on abortion “cost us everything because abortion is about everything.” 

*Names have been changed