Dr Jen Gunter. Photo: Wikipedia
Dr Jen Gunter. Photo: Wikipedia

Opinion | The doctor who’s busting myths of reproductive health

Misinformation abounds about women’s reproductive health. Religious interests, the patriarchy and the wellness industry are using false notions and junk science to serve themselves

I stumbled upon Dr Jen Gunter on a Twitter thread where she was being trolled for “trying to bring medical science into faith-based beliefs and cosmological understanding". Gunter is the bestselling author of The Vagina Bible: The Vulva And The Vagina—Separating The Myth From The Medicine. The book, which debunks junk science and new-age myths about the female anatomy and reproductive health, has been described as “everything you wanted to know about the vagina but were afraid to ask". Jen also has a regular column in The New York Times called “The Cycle", where she writes about the intersection of women’s health, sex, science and pop culture, and hosts a CBC series, Jensplaining.

The troll was incensed at Gunter for suggesting that there was no harm in doing yoga during the menstrual cycle (some teachers forbid women from doing yoga while menstruating). “Many people find yoga very helpful as an exercise and as a practice. However, yoga positions do not need to be avoided during menstruation" she tells me in an interview. “To suggest otherwise is false. Women deserve facts."

Gunter’s battle against pseudoscience and what she calls the “Wellness Industrial Complex" began when she came out guns blazing at Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, her $250 million wellness company, for spreading myths about the female anatomy. “With regard to women’s bodies, the religious right and the Wellness Industrial Complex both use pseudoscience and purity myths," she says. “The former to control women through lies about the reproductive tract to promote falsehoods about contraception, pregnancy, and abortion, and the latter to create fear to sell products."

Goop claims that bras cause breast cancer (they don’t), that inserting a “jade egg" into the vagina is an ancient Chinese remedy for “recharging feminine energy" (it’s not), or that a practice called “vaginal steaming" can cleanse the uterus of toxins.

“The uterus doesn’t have ‘toxins’ and suggesting otherwise and/or promoting uterine ‘cleansing’ is patriarchal and potentially harmful," says Gunter. “If the uterus has toxins, it would be a poor place for an embryo to implant and grow."

At the Goop summit hosted by Paltrow, a speaker said all diseases, including cancer, could be “cured by love", citing herself as an example. She neglected to tell the attendees that she’d also had extensive chemotherapy.

The global wellness industry grew from $3.7 trillion in 2015 to $4.2 trillion in 2017, according to a research report. It includes wellness tourism in the form of “holistic healing" retreats , mind-body fitness routines such as yoga, and alternative medicine. While there is evidence about the benefits of Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and yoga, too often medically unsound practices and spurious products are propagated in the name of wellness.

In South Asia, the combination of religion and patriarchy can be a lethal mix. Indian women are often forbidden from entering places of worship during menstruation and may have trouble accessing items such as sanitary pads. In parts of the subcontinent, women are shunned during menstruation. Much of the social stigma stems from notions of “purity" and “pollution" in these cultures. As Gunter observes, “It is the core tenet of the patriarchy that women’s bodies are ‘dirty’ or ‘problematic’. This marginalisation typically begins when periods start. Girls and women feel shame if they leak blood on their clothes. Many cultures exclude women and girls from school, work, and religious services—even sometimes telling them they can’t be in the kitchen—because they are menstruating and hence supposedly ‘unclean’."

Gunter attracts a large following and is hailed as a feminist heroine for surviving personal trauma and butting heads with the establishment. She has drawn on her experience as an obstetrician-gynecologist to protest against “medically illiterate" legislation that seeks to outlaw abortion, often putting women at grave risk. In Kansas, she had to treat a patient with a potentially life threatening condition, made worse by her pregnancy. Abortions are illegal in the state, so she called the legislator who wrote the law. He advised her to go ahead and do what she “thought best". What he left unspoken was that if arrested, she would be left to fend for herself. Furious at having to choose between her job security and the life of a patient, she had what she calls a “political awakening". She did the abortion.

In 2003, she gave birth to triplets. One was born prematurely at 22 weeks and died shortly after delivery. The other two were delivered at 26 weeks, both with severe health complications. She struggled to find reliable information online to alleviate their symptoms. “Though I was a doctor, I struggled with the health system. I found myself on blogs with questionable advice and consequently made some health decisions I wished I hadn’t. I realized if I could be vulnerable to snake oil and misinformation, and feel neglected by medicine, then I was pretty sure other people also felt that way. I decided I was going to try to fix the medical internet, and here we are!"