Cover: Women's Health Protection

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by Harriet Simand Amid an RCMP investigation over the Health Protection Branch's failure to protect women against unsafe breast implants and a public protest by senior staff scientists who say their safety concerns about cattle growth hormones were overridden, Health Canada is talking about 'modernizing' health protection legislation by making it more 'flexible' and doing away with accountability under the criminal code. Women might not have been harmed by DES, the Dalkon Shield, the Copper 7 IUD and the M^me Breast implants to name a few  had Canada's regulatory system involved greater public participation and accountability, and stronger effectiveness and safety standards. Safety regulations governing what types of drugs and medical devices can be sold in Canada provide a backdrop to many key concerns raised by women's health groups during the last 30 years .

Women Meet Representatives of women's health groups, university researchers, consumer and public health activists met in Toronto on September 12 and 13 to discuss Health Canada's planned overhaul of the health protection laws. Sponsored by the National Network on Environments and Women's Health (NNEWH)one of five research Centres of Excellence for Women's Health  the meetings saw women talk of the need to develop policy recommendations which promote women's equality, improve on existing safeguards to protect health, and ensure more of a voice for women in decision-making.


DES Action/Canada, a national women's health group whose members are justifiably worried about plans to weaken Canada's health protection laws, hosted the Toronto meetings. Women exposed to the drug DES have already suffered from weak health protection. DES (diethylstilbestrol) was prescribed to hundreds of thousands of pregnant Canadian women between 1941 and 1971, and was found to cause a rare cancer in some of their daughters. DES had been shown to cause cancer in mice in the 1940's. If its producers had heeded this warning and stopped selling the drug, much suffering could have been prevented. Not only was DES harmful, it was found to be ineffective in preventing miscarriage as early as 1953. Neither the government nor manufacturers have provided any compensation to Canadians exposed to DES. The main concern expressed by everyone at the meeting was that our health protection system needs to be STRENGTHENED, not weakened in the name of flexibility. "The purpose of regulation is protection of the public and that must remain sacrosanct," said one participant.

Drugs Approved in Secret

In Canada, women are the majority users of health services, but lack a voice in decision-making. New drugs are approved in secret, without public hearings or access to safety and effectiveness studies. When Depo Provera was approved for birth control two years ago, no women's groups, disability groups, aboriginals or anti-poverty groups were informed about the upcoming decision or consulted, although these groups had previously raised concerns about human rights abuses with this product, and its long-term safety. Canada's drug regulation is much less democratic than the United States, which has public hearings, access to safety and effectiveness information in drug files, and a special FDA women's health office.

Medicating Women's Lives

Since the 1970's, women's health activists have raised concerns about unnecessary medicalization of women's lives. We need real solutions to discri-mination, poverty and violence, not a double dose of tranquilizers and anti-depressants. It is also demeaning for healthy menopausal women to be told they are somehow naturally deficient without drug treatment. As pharmaceutical marketing has played a large part in this medicalization, we need to look at what types of regulatory policies could prevent it in the future.

Funding Cuts

The government's plans to "modernize" national health protection laws follow large-scale funding cuts to the regulatory agency, down from a budget of $237 million in 1993-1994 to a projected $118 million in 1999-2000. The staff has been cut drastically and in-house drug and food research laboratories have been closed. The Therapeutic Products Directorate, which licenses new drugs and medical devices and bans or restricts those found to be unsafe, now relies on industry user fees to cover 70% of its operating costs. It used to be funded out of general tax revenues. Has this change in funding led the agency to view itself as serving the industry rather than the Canadian public? In a May, 1997 Globe & Mail interview, Dr. Landry, acting chief of the Veterinary Drugs Bureau, appeared to agree with this view: "I guess if you focus it that way, the client and the public, industry is our client..." We need to make it clear that the Health Protection Branch's purpose is to protect and serve the public, not industry, and to ensure that women's voices are heard.

Harriet Simand is the founder of DES Action/Canada.

How Can You Get Involved? The Health Protection Branch Transition is a two-year process. You can participate in that review process in the following ways:

  • Attend the public hearings in your city (see page 4).   
  • Order fact sheets on the impact of the health protection reform on women from the address below.
  • Join DES's Internet Listserv discussion group for non-profit women's health and community groups and concerned individuals.


Contact DES at:

DES Action Canada 5890 Monkland Ave. Suite 203 Montreal, QC H4A 1G2
Tel: (514) 482-3204 Fax: (514) 482-1445