I’ve never met Lorraine Rothman, a women’s health activist and inventor of
the Del’Em menstrual extraction kit. But I came to know her work through my
dissertation research, and so I was deeply saddened to hear that she is dying.
Rothman was an early leader of the self-help health movement, a phenomenon
of early 1970s women’s liberation that involved groups of women using a speculum
to look at each other’s cervixes. Think of it as a physical complement to
consciousness-raising, a way for women to gain knowledge and authority about
their own bodies. Instead of relying on a gynecologist (usually male, at that
time) to tell us about the health or sickness of our bodies, women would be able
to help each other know their bodies from the inside out, literally.
In 1971, Lorraine Rothman and Carol Downer traveled around the country
with a slide presentation and bags of speculum to teach women about the art of
what they called “self-help,” sparking the creation of “self-help clinics” as
they went. Rothman then invented the Del’Em (basically a soft plastic tube and
vacuum jar), which self-help groups could learn to use to remove the contents of
the uterus on the day menstruation began or was expected. This process of
“menstrual extraction” was touted as a way to liberate women from the
inconveniences of menstruation. It could also be used as a method of very early
abortion. This procedure offered another way for women to use technology to take
an active, cooperative role in the workings of their own bodies.
Though self-help and menstrual extraction is all but forgotten, Rothman
was a key figure in the development of feminist health care, co-founding several
feminist women’s health centers. It is sad and ironic, then, that she is now
fatally ill because of the failure of her own health care. She is dying of
advanced, metastasized bladder cancer, which was not detected by the doctors she
saw through her HMO over the past two years of her pelvic pain. She did not see
a urologist, because her HMO did not offer the option of seeing a female doctor.
A physician’s assistant at a women’s health center finally detected that she had
a serious problem, but while Rothman waited for an appointment with a
uro-gynecologist through her HMO, her pain became unbearable and a visit to the
emergency room diagnosed her advanced cancer. She is now in hospice care.
Her story proves that we still have a long way to go to create a health
care system that is responsive and accessible to all patients, providing
services that meet their needs and earn their trust. With feminist health care
centers like those Rothman helped create now on the wane, many women like her
(and others, such as transfolk) with reason to distrust the medical
establishment, are falling through the gaping health care cracks. Rothman may
have been utopian in thinking that viewing the cervix with a group of women
friends could change the world, but we would do well to ask ourselves: where is
empowerment and self-determination in health care today?
Submitted by Judith on September 24, 2007 - 2:30pm.
So . . .does anyone wanna check my cervix out?