Friday, April 20, 2007

What if You Could Eliminate Your Period?

Za sent me an interesting article today from the NYTimes debating the cultural consequences of a new pill, called Lybrel, that allows women to "turn off" their period for months/years at a time. The article suggests that there are no serious health risks to taking this pill, and if we accept this as true, we need to debate whether or not it is a good thing for women that they can control more powerfully when they get their period.

Given that I tend to be less anti-technology and science than some feminist critics (not all), I don't really see a moral issue with this pill. I can imagine that some feminists can make more sociological arguments that I would be sympathetic to, rather than the ethical arguments. From the standpoint of whether or not I should be permitted to take Lybrel, I say "hell yes." But, there is always the larger question of the unintended consequences of such biotechnologies (the sociological argument). If the majority of women opt to take Lybrel (the Times quoted a study that said 2/3 of all women expressed an interest in giving up their period), what sort of effect will this have culturally on our tolerance for women who do not opt to take Lybrel?

At this point, the usual move is toward the alarmist, Brave New World or Gattaca type scenario wherein greater advancements in our ability to "intelligently (re)design" ourselves (a phrase I am borrowing from Daniel Dennett) will ultimately mean that we will use the technology for bad, for punishment of deviants, and to set up a superclass of periodless women who dominate all the power jobs over those who cannot access the drug or who choose to renounce such technology.

Over the years I have grown sort of disaffected with the alarmist rhetoric that creeps up everytime a new technology is reported on in the press or other popular journals. I am equally concerned that many of my fellow Philosophers tend to buy into this alarmist and Luddite rhetoric. I guess I don't see that scientific knowledge and advancement always lead to the dystopia scenarios that folks fret over. I don't even think that they necessarily lead to greater sexism or intolerance of sexual difference, as marked by biological events such as menstruation.

The core question here, to my mind, is what's wrong with women intelligently redesigning themselves in ways that fits with their ideals and aspirations. I personally get no deep meaning or satisfaction from having my period (especially since it hurts a whole lot). But, I also don't make the mistake (largely because I don't hold a particular theological view that God created all of nature and thereby it is all good) that what is natural is always better (naturalistic fallacy). There are lots of natural events and phenomena that are bad: let's take viruses. If we didn't try to combat them, I am pretty sure they would (and still might) wipe us out.

In any case, I am curious to hear what you all think of Lybrel. Perhaps you have some compelling arguments that I should pay attention to for why it is concerning to engineer away our periods?