The new mom and dad wait anxiously in the hospital room, longing to meet their precious newborn. After the strenuous hours of painful labor, they have no idea why the baby was taken away so suddenly, and why everything is being delayed. Their heads snap up as the nurse walks in, and their spirits drop as she begins to speak. The words sorry.. deformed… and a low chance of survival swirl around the room, and the rest of her words fall away. Here begins the story of every parent’s worst nightmare. And it’s a tale that dominated the lives of hundreds of thousands of families during the 1950s, and still affects many today. The Thalidomide crisis.

This crisis stands out as a double-edged sword because not only did the drug inflict suffering on the millions of women it targeted, but it also led to future policy changes that are killing off women today.

The history of Thalidomide is interesting and controversial, with evidence potentially tying its origins back to Nazi experimentation. But in the 1950s, the drug resurfaced and became extremely prevalent among pregnant women, as it helped with sleep and morning sickness. It took 10 years for people to realize that this medication was the reason birth defects were soaring. Besides the 123,000 babies that died at birth and those killed from infanticide due to their deformities, thousands of survivors spent their lives without functional limbs or organs, with facial deformities, deafness, blindness and/or with heart problems.

This woke the US up to the harms that medication could have on women, and the FDA decided to minimize the risks. They released a law stating that women could only participate in medical trials in the later phases after researchers had gained some confidence in the drug. The intention was pure, but most scientists overreacted and excluded women completely from the testing process.

That’s when everything got worse. When women used medication that was only proven effective and harmless in men, they began to face never before seen side-effects. All female consumers essentially became test subjects for their medication, and the drugs’ initial release into the market acted as a large scale medical trial for women. This meant that researchers would only discover their medication’s destructive side-effects after it had been released in the market, and harmed thousands of women. (Examples and statistics are listed below)

The laws have changed, but bias towards men in these studies still persists. Now, males are considered to be more “simple” to test on, because they don’t have menstrual cycles, get pregnant, or go through menopause, and this is used as justification to continue excluding women. This backward thinking has cost women their lives, their health, and their wellbeing, and the fact that this is still happening is essentially a statement that women don’t matter if we come in the way of things being “simple”. But that’s wrong. We have power and we have a voice. And as long as “simple” means accepting this heartless apathy quietly, it is our job to ensure things get complicated. It’s time to rise up and to use the voices we were given. It’s time for a change.

Examples/ Statistics:

  1. In 1986, a project on breast and uterine cancer was conducted solely on men
  2. Women make up 2/3 of the people affected by Alzheimer’s. It was always assumed this was just because they live longer, so medication continued to be based on men’s clinical trials. Recently, after analyzing some of the women’s data, researchers realized women may be more affected because of hormonal changes that they go through later in life. This could possibly open new doors to different kinds of preventative measures and treatments for women.
  3. Cardiovascular disease affects men and women differently at every level. This means the way we acquire the disease, the way the drugs are absorbed into your system, and the way our body responses to the drug is all different. It is also the number 1 killer of US women. However, only 1/3 of the subjects for these trials are female.
  4. On average, only 19% of subjects in clinical trials for AIDS are female.
  5. 8/10 prescription drugs removed from the market from 1997 to 2001 were more harmful to women than to men.
  6. In 2013, 15% of women who took a sleeping pill called Ambien were still affected by it 8 hours after taking it, which resulted in impaired functioning the next day. Further research resulted in the recommended dosage for women to change to 1/2 of the original amount.