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DES: a dangerous drug
by FAAR Staff
Feminist Alliance Against Rape Newsletter Jan/Feb/Mar 1975

In early April, the Feminist Women's Health Centers, along with the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women and the Women's Clinic of the Washington Free Clinic, organized lobbying activities in Washington, D.C. to prohibit the use of Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a form of estrogen.

Their immediate goal is to win support for an upcoming bill proposed by Senator Kennedy. The bill, if passed, would put a one year moratorium on the use of DES as a post-coital contraceptive for women, and as a fattener for cattle.1

DES was administered to pregnant women between the years 1945 and 1970 to prevent miscarriage, although its effectiveness was never determined. Daughters of these women stand a 90% chance of having vaginal adenosis, (abnormal cells in the vagina). Whether or not vaginal adenosis leads to vaginal cancer has not yet been determined. However, over 200 "DES daughters" are known to have contracted vaginal cancer, among them girls as young as seven.

There are 3 million "DES daughters" in the U.S. Most of these women are unaware of DES and do not know that they may have adenosis, which is infrequently diagnosed.

DES, in the form of the "morning-after pill", is often given to victims of rape, without their being informed of the possible effects of the drug. There is a chance (as yet unproved), that administering DES to a woman with adenosis could cause the development of vaginal cancer. Another concern to rape victims, whether or not they are "DES daughters", is the fact that the "morning-after pill" is not 100% effective in preventing pregnancy. Therefore, if the woman gives birth, her child, if female, will be a "DES daughter".2

Ideally, women should have the right to make an informed choice about whether or not to use DES and risk the possible adverse medical consequences. However, at this time rape victims and other women are not given the opportunity to make an informed choice. Therefore, we. support current efforts to ban DES.

As feminists, we have been negligent in educating the public about DES. The medical profession cannot be trusted to provide this information. A mass educational campaign is warranted whether or not the bill passes. Until DES is a household word, women cannot make informed choices about its use.

DES and abortion are presently the only available methods for terminating a pregnancy. It is crucial that the alternative to DES, abortion, be assured to women. Recently, the right to abortion for poor women was seriously threatened by the Bartlett Amendment. This proposed amendment to Kennedy's Health Bill would have banned the use of Medicaid funds for abortions.

Fortunately, this amendment was defeated, at least temporarily, when it was tabled on April 10th, due largely to the lobbying of women's groups. Despite the amendment's defeat, not all women are assured easy access to abortion. For instance, many women who are not eligible for Medicaid often still have difficulty in meeting the cost.

We must continue to fight for every woman's right to safely prevent or terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

1Beef from cattle which has been fed DES contains a small residue of the drug. The Food and Drug Administration banned DES in cattle feed because of their concern that eating the beef could cause cancer. However, the ban was removed.

2Information about DES was taken from a fact sheet on "Diethylstibestrol and the Morning-After Pill" from the Tallahassee Feminist Women's Health Center, and from a new booklet by Kay Weiss called What the Rape Victim (Or Anyone) Should Know About the "Morning-After Pill".