The H Word

The diagnostic studies to evaluate symptoms,
alternatives in treatment,
and coping with the aftereffects of hysterectomy.

Nora W. Coffey and Rick Schweikert

reviewed by Mira de Vries

The H word is hysterectomy.

Coffey underwent hysterectomy and oophorectomy against her wishes and without medical necessity. We are not told when but from the text we can infer it was in the early eighties of the 20th century. We are also not told her age, but her children were still young. Enraged by the injustice of what happened to her, she dedicated the rest of her life to educating women and anyone else who will listen about female anatomy and the damage done by mutilating it. To this end she founded and directs the HERS Foundation.

Schweikert is a realtor Coffey happened to meet in 2002 regarding an unrelated issue. He took an immediate interest in Coffey’s activism. To support it, he wrote a play called un becoming.

The two decided to dedicate a year of their lives to bringing their activism to every state of the US. We aren’t told directly which year it was, but from hints in the text we can surmise 2003-2004. The Wikipedia entry when modified on 30 August 2014 (which may have been edited by Coffey herself) gave the year as 2004-2005. Wikipedia as well as Amazon state that The H Word was published in 2009 whereas the date in the book is 2008. These discrepancies are trivial; I’m mentioning them only to clarify that this is the same publication.

The book chronicles the authors’ actions and experiences. They picketed hospitals, distributed flyers, and produced the play, apparently every day of that year, even on public holidays. Along the way they met and heard the personal accounts of many (families of) women who have had experiences similar to Coffey’s. They also encountered physicians and medical students. Some were sympathetic to their cause, many were hostile, most just ignored it.

Sandwiched between the narrative is the excellent information promised by the subtitle. 

A third of all women in the United States have undergone hysterectomy by the time they are 60, almost always unnecessarily. Uterine cancer, the only condition that would justify such an invasive operation, is actually quite rare. The same is true for ovarian cancer, yet the ovaries, too, are often amputated. Coffey repeatedly reminds the reader that the ovaries are gonads, corresponding to the testes in men, so removing them is castration. She might have punctuated this claim by explaining that the first six weeks of an embryo’s life the gonads are identical -- they will begin to differentiate into testicles or ovaries only later.

The rate of cancer of the sexual organs is nearly the same in men and women, yet the rate of surgical intervention in men is but a tiny fraction of that in women. Proliferation of female gynecologists in recent decades has not reduced the rate of hysterectomies and oophorectomies. The authors aptly point out that western society is affronted by female circumcision, nowadays often called female genital mutilation, but remains silent and unaware of the large-scale unwarranted mutilation and amputation of the internal female sexual organs in its own midst.

Apparently in the US consent forms must be signed before any surgical procedure is done. These forms are designed to protect the surgeon and hospital against litigation. They essentially give carte blanche to surgeons to perform any procedure they wish. Consent women give, or their husbands give while the wife is anesthetized, is based on duress and misinformation.

The authors deserve praise for their courage in locking horns with the huge, powerful, wealthy, and privileged medical establishment. It is important to mention that they are not calling for an all-out ban on hysterectomy and oophorectomy. Their objection is to pressure tactics by gynecologists and their failure to provide information that corresponds with the reality of women who have undergone these amputations.

Much to their credit, the authors acknowledge the role of invasive, unnecessary, and damaging surgery in other medical fields as well, specifically lobotomy. There is also a brief mention of nazi medical crimes.

This book is wonderful for women wishing to identify with other women who have been gynecologically violated. Readers interested in the medical information only will find it more conveniently accessible on the HERS Foundation's excellent website. The ‛donate’ button is modestly tucked away at the bottom.

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