The Rebel Girl: Dow Bows, FDA Applauds

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Catherine Sameh

DOW CORNING, the infamous manufacturer of Napalm, aerospace chemicals and silicone breast implants, announced that it would cease production of the latter controversial devices–the ones being surgically inserted in the chests of U.S. women at the rate of 150,000 pair a year.

Running from a deluge of lawsuits, the company is forsaking that one percent of its profits derived from the implants in an effort to avoid further court battles. Furthermore, they see the future market for implants dwindling now that serious questions about their safety have been raised.

Dow Corning failed for almost thirty years to conduct adequate safety studies on the implants, even after scientists within the company demanded that they do so. Dow’s disregard for women’s health has cost thousands of women significant emotional and physical hardship, though the company continues to claim that the implants are perfectly safe.

Dow will now bow out graciously by contributing $10 million to further studies and offering $1,200 to low-income women who want to have their implants removed. Removals can cost many times that sum.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel, formed in the wake of the controversy, recently emerged with a recommendation to leave silicone breast implants on the market, but under severe restrictions. Their final conclusion is that there is insufficient evidence to declare the implants unsafe, but enough to warrant some suspicion.

The panel recommended that women be allowed to receive the implants only as part of a research protocol, for which they would be nationally registered and monitored for long-term problems. All women wanting the implants for reconstruction would qualify; a limited number of women who want the implants for cosmetic purposes would qualify–at the FDA’s discretion.

FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler will make the final decision within the next two months. In the meantime, the moratorium on the sale and use of the implants will remain in effect. It’s hard to tell what these restrictions will mean if Kessler opts for this plan.

The protocol will obviously favor women with mastectomies. How the FDA will decide which women seeking cosmetic enlargement qualify will no doubt be interesting: Will they measure need by smallness of breasts? Level of desperation? Financial status? Some of each? How strict or lenient will they be?

Many issues were left out of the implant debate. Those in favor of keeping them on the market argued that women, liberated by having gained equal access to the market, should have “freedom to choose.” Those opposed said they were dangerous to women’s health.

Few suggested that the context in which women make these choices must be radically shifted. That women, in the face of the enormous power of the medical and chemical industries, are not setting the terms of the debate. That it’s hard to feel victorious when the FDA believes that Dow officials “are following through on their commitment to women by establishing a research fund and a compassionate policy regarding implant removal.”

May-June 1992, ATC 38