Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:53 am on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake 11:53 am, 10th June 1988

My hon. Friend the Minister has a turn of phrase which is not always the one that I would use, but that is for her to decide.

It is important that women are encouraged to come forward. I made it plain that I had undergone this test, that there was nothing to it and that I would continue to have it regularly in the hope that as a woman in public life I was not simply urging other people to do what I was not prepared to do myself. That is a more effective encouragement.

I do not know whether my experience in my own limited area is common in the country as a whole. My hon. Friend the Minister will know better than I whether there is any widespread reluctance to undergo these tests on the scale that we think is necessary and proper. If my experience is symptomatic the matter needs to be looked at in health education measures and in public discussions.

I think it is correct to say, but perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, that young girls who engage in very early sexual activity have a statistically greater risk of contracting cervical cancer. If that is so it should be dealt with by health education for the young. It is not a matter of which anyone would immediately think, especially youngsters who have been brought up to think that there is nothing morally or practically wrong—contraception has developed—in engaging in early sexual activity. I look forward to hearing a reply about that from my hon. Friend the Minister.

The newer techniques that have been developed with breast cancer do not involve the drastic amputation that many, perhaps all, women have dreaded and have found so difficult to come to terms with when it happens to them. I am not sure that those newer techniques are always embraced by the medical profession. The Jeannie Campbell appeal, which has contacted all lady Members, has been campaigning for less drastic methods where they are suitable. In a recent letter, the appeal chairman, Peter Hawkins, says: I am extremely disturbed by the increasing number of cases being brought to my attention in which breast cancer patients actually have suffered, or have been threatened by, unnecessary breast amputation.In the majority this has been because the possibility of alternative conservative treatment was never discussed between diagnosis and mastectomy. In an appalling minority the patient was found, after 'automatic' mastectomy wrongly had taken place, never to have had breast cancer in the beginning. At the end of his letter he expresses his worry about the all-embracing consent form that patients must sign before having an operation. My hon. Friend the Minister should consider quickly, if she has not done so already, the terms of the consent form. There is nothing worse than giving general consent but discovering that the operation has been carried out in a way to which one would never have consented had one been aware of the full implications. If such a thing happened to me, I would be furious and boiling mad. It would be, however, too late and could not be redressed. I urge my hon. Friend to consider that as quickly as possible.

My hon. Friend the Minister did not deal much with stress-related diseases. It is a matter that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) had in mind when she gave her survey of what may lie behind women's ill health. It is true that many women are subject to much stress because of work, unemployment or family problems. They should never use excessively tranquillisers and sleeping tablets as an updated version of a medieval cure. I hope that the medical profession is far more aware of the dangers of long-term addiction to what appear to be harmless drugs and that it is far more wary of prescribing them.

I was shattered to be told by an organisation called Broadreach House, which operates in the Plymouth area and specialises in drug and general chemical dependency, that it found it more difficult to wean members of both sexes off such drugs than it did to wean people off heroin or the other so-called hard drugs. Unless tranquillisers are used on a short-term basis to deal with a crisis in a woman's life or health, they are worse than what they are supposedly trying to cure. We must be far more wary of prescribing them and we need a health education programme to explain to women the dangers of using them.

On many occasions, women have visited my constituency advice bureau and said, almost as a matter of course, "I am on X, Y or Z" as though it was the most natural thing in the world. The long-term use of those drugs horrified me even before we reached our present point of knowledge about them. We shall have to give urgent attention to that problem. It is easier to give urgent attention to something that directly threatens life, but emergency treatment should be available for those other ailments or stress-related diseases that do not necessary kill but cause many problems.

It is clear that many women suffer stress simply as a result of trying to perform the traditional tasks of being a housewife and mother while holding down a full or part-time job. I know that one suggestion to tackle the problem is the all-embracing creche facilities, nursery classes and the like. I am not against those facilities and I am sure that they have a valuable role to play. A futher solution that could run alongside those facilities, which would ease that burden, would be if women could take time off when their families were young without their employment and promotion prospects being impeded when they return to the market place. We must look far more closely than we have previously at the possibility of returning women to work after a period away from their working environment while they give their first attention to their families.

That may be the prerogative of other Departments, such as the Department of Employment, but I am sure it would not be beyond the powers of my hon. Friend the Minister to interfere, in the kindest possible way, in the activities of other Departments to ensure that they consider the woman's point of view.

It would be useful if medical practitioners and nurses were more aware of how much of a burden women carry in their domestic lives and jobs. I know that it is generally believed that the husband or partner give far more help with the housework than they used to, but my strong hunch is that for every man who does all those saintly duties there are a further nine who do precious little, continue in exactly the way that they always have but expect the women to hold down a job and carry out the domestic duties.