Breaking news: women have health issues?

I can’t do it. I just can’t. I’ve been trying to keep this blog updated with all the goings-on but days pass here at a stunning clip, packed with people and activities and before I know it, a week or so has slipped away and I’ve written nothing here. I suspect that people are going on with their lives quite swimmingly anyway, but the thing is…I want to be able to share it all. I want to help people understand just what a tremendous opportunity this is. Yesterday, the Knight-Wallace Foundation and sponsorship partner The Kellogg Foundation hosted a conference on Women’s Health, exploring the press and public policy. It’s an annual affair, focusing each time on a different topic. This year involved a rather impressive panel of experts and journalists, including keynote speaker Susan Wood, who famously resigned her position as Director of the Office of Women’s Health at the FDA after the agency announced its refusal to approve an emergency contraceptive for over-the-counter use. For pro-choice advocates and many passionate about women’s health, she’s about as close to a rock star as it gets – albeit one disguised with long, grey hair older than her years, pulled into a grandmotherly bun at the back of her head.

Considering she was allotted a mere ten minutes to speak (in order to get to the other panelists), Wood made some really interesting points. There’s been a lot of to-do about her decision, many people equating emergency contraception with abortion and turning this into a religious, moral and ethical decision. Wood made it clear, however, that her problem with the FDA’s decision was about science.

Essentially, the FDA put Plan B into “rule-making” status which Wood equates to never-ending bureaucratic limbo – a way to kill its approval without saying so. She noted that this is not about abortion – it’s about women’s access to contraception and that the decision flew in the face of all FDA precedent. No other method of OTC contraception had ever been subjected to such rule-making. There were no concerns about this medication’s safety and efficacy. In fact, it contains the very same hormone – progesterone – that other contraceptive pills use. It was, Wood said, “an unprecedented overruling of scientific consensus and medical evidence.” And that, she pointed out, was what she objected to – essentially, that the FDA took a stance that was outside of their purview, contrary to their historical role and actions. It appeared that Wood took issue with her resignation being co-opted by either side of the pro-choice movement when, really, it’s about a much larger issue.

Her resignation, she explained, “came at a time when it added to the debate about government competence and how decisions were being made….It is those larger issues about science and what you expect from government – and what you should insist on from government – that are important.” Her implication was clear – once the FDA starts making decisions based on anything other than science (such as morals, etc.), it’s dangerous territory.

“Science needs to drive our health policy decision making,” Wood noted. “This is something we should all insist upon.” And she urged members of the press to help define and, in a sense, monitor the “proper role” of the FDA (and other agencies) in science.

Imagine what she could have gotten across in 11 minutes, no?

Wood was followed by a varied group of women in public health, including Vivian Pinn, Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH; Frances Visco, President of the National Breast Cancer Coalition; Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Michigan’s Surgeon General; and several other notable authors and members of the press.

I was intrigued by Visco’s take on the whole cult of breast cancer events. I presumed she’d speak positively about the massive amount of PR and media exposure breast cancer, as a cause, seems to have successfully achieved. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, especially over the last two years.

After my mother died, I read everything I could about women and heart disease. I discovered that it affects and kills more women than breast cancer – and that lack of knowledge about the symptoms of women’s heart attacks (which often differ drastically from men’s) is part of the reason that women are far more likely to die of heart attacks than men.

In short (too late, I hear you say), I’ve become frustrated that women’s heart disease doesn’t have the same level of PR and activism as breast cancer. Why aren’t we lighting buildings red and buying all sorts of red things on the same scale as we do with the infamous color pink? Visco was firm in her belief, however, that this kind of exposure doesn’t actually help the cause for breast cancer. “The more attention [these things] get, things start to become more of a sound bite rather than a meaningful discussion,” she said.

I had a chance to speak with Visco about her position in person at a reception afterwards at the Wallace House. She reiterated her concern about the role the media can play by focusing on the wrong things (often unwittingly), disseminating erroneous information and giving more exposure to lighting buildings pink and PR-seeking politicians than focusing on the real issues at hand. Very interesting woman.

------Random notes & catch-up:

Youssou N'Dour's Egypt at the Hill Auditorium was a stunning event and the only thing that rivaled his powerful voice were the wonderful women in the audience, wrapped up in traditional Senegalese garb, yards of fabric around their bodies and head. Occasionally throughout his performance, one or two would suddenly jump to their feet, as if seized by an uncontrollable urge, as if their seats could simply no longer contain them. They'd bounce like jewels, the light dancing off the sequins of their gowns, limbs akimbo, hands wringing the air until, as abruptly as they'd taken to their feet, they would return to their seats.

I'm a-comin' home again

It seems that I’m never in Ann Arbor long before another obligation is drawing me out of town. On Friday morning – after we present our dinner to the Fellows Thursday – Chris and I head back to St. Louis for the weekend. It’s time for another installment of Free Candy and I absolutely cannot wait to do it.

For you St. Louisans out there, we’ve got some great guests lined up. Edna Gravenhorst will be joining us – she and two friends started Three Nosey Broads, an agency that investigates the secret history of your historic home. Plus, we’ll have guest band City Folk and also Rob Thurman, taking the baton from KWMU’s Tom Weber as one of St. Louis Magazine's newly named Top Singles. I’ll be catching all of you up on the adventures of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship and life in Ann Arbor. Like you need to hear more. Hope to see you there - Sunday, Nov. 13 @ 7 pm, Hartford Coffee Company. Hey, it's FREE!

On the writing front

I'm excited to have a piece in the upcoming debut issue of 52nd City, from scenesters Thomas Crone, Andrea Avery & Stefene Russell. In addition, I've just finished an essay that will appear in Spike Gillespie's upcoming book on, gulp, anger. Keep your eyes peeled!