Horses and Hormones

If you visited one of the 485 Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) farms in North Dakota or Manitoba, you would find mares tied up so tightly in tiny stalls they can barely take a step. The mares have no bedding on their floors, but it wouldn't matter if they did. They cannot comfortably lie down or even rest their head on the cold concrete floors.The urine from these mares is being used to produce one of America's best-known hormone replacement therapy drugs prescribed for post-menopausal women -- an estrogen substitute called Premarin (PREgnant MARe urINE), manufactured by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories.The continuous standing on the concrete floors (sometimes in their own feces) causes the mares to have swollen legs, and many die as a result of the stress and treatment they are subjected to. Straps attached to the ceiling firmly hold a rubber cup onto the mares' urethra to catch the precious urine, causing sores on their legs and lower bellies, and painful urinary tract infections. Many mares have puss oozing from sores that aren't treated with antibiotics because it would contaminate their urine.People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has sent under-cover investigators to observe the barbaric conditions under which the urine is collected. They've witnessed horses being hit with shovels and a metal wooden rasp. In excerpts from the PMU farm investigator's daily logs, one farmer noted, "Sometimes a mare will get ornery and kick or nip at you because they stand for so many months...we had to pop them on the nose to keep them in line when that happened."According to "Menopause Online" a web site of PETA, each mare is artificially inseminated, fitted with a rubber urine-collection bag, and chained in a stall so small she can't lie down for the 11-month gestation period. She is rarely, if ever, taken out for exercise. She is also denied water to concentrate the estrogen in her urine. (Farmers are paid by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories according to the strength of estrogen in the urine.) Two weeks after she foals, the mare is impregnated again. The foal, an inconvenient by-product of pregnancy, is usually sold for slaughter, as are the mares, once their usefulness is over.About 75,000 mares are subjected to this treatment every year. The fate of the approximately 70,000 foals born each year on PMU farms is equally disturbing. Some are kept for stud or to replace their worn-out mothers. Most of the foals, at the tender age of four months, are sold to "kill buyers," who fatten them up in unsheltered feed lots, slaughter them, and sell them to European and Japanese buyers as a meat delicacy. Over 50 years, this "harvest" has killed millions of PMU foals.Premarin may have been the only option when it was introduced in 1942, but there are many synthetic or natural alternatives available to women today. Unfortunately, many doctors do not automatically offer these options.When Olivia Bell Buehl, editor of "Great Life" magazine, mentioned to her gynecologist that her mother, who had recently died, had suffered from osteoporosis, he immediately prescribed Premarin. The drug, he said, would help protect Buehl's bones. What he didn't tell her is the atrocious conditions under which Premarin is produced. When she found out, she confronted her doctor, who was happy to prescribe a plant-based alternative."I asked why he had not given me this choice originally," writes Buehl in the June, 1999 issue of "Great Life," "and he confessed he was just in the habit of prescribing Premarin." On the average, women experience menopause -- the complete cessation of menstruation -- when they are about 51 years old, according to the North American Menopause Society. More than a third of a woman's life is spent after menopause. By the year 2000, it's estimated that more than 50 million American women will be postmenopausal.These numbers are not lost on the pharmaceutical industry. "Menopause is a multi-million dollar business," writes Joseph and Mary Ann Mayo, authors of "The Menopause Manager: A Safe Path for a Natural Change." "Clearly, it is in the best interest of drug companies to ensure that most women and their doctors view menopause as a medical condition that requires medication. The very name hormone replacement therapy (HRT) implies that it's therapeutic to replace hormones that are lost naturally. And companies have spent millions over the years to create and sustain the myth that all women need this therapy."Despite doctors' recommendations and aggressive marketing campaigns by drug companies, it's estimated that less than 20 to 30 percent of postmenopausal women are on HRT. As noted in "Menopause," a publication of the National Institutes of Health, of those who begin taking hormones, 54.4 percent stop within one year.As with any drug, the risks must be weighed against the benefits. According to the August 19, 1998 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), studies have shown that HRT drugs such as Premarin may have a protective effect on the heart. HRT may also delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease and seems to improve mental functioning in Alzheimer's patients. Finally, women who take HRT seem to live longer, although this could be due to other factors, such as the possibility that, as a group, they take better care of themselves than other women.But HRT is no magic, fountain-of-youth pill. Two studies noted in the August 19, 1998 JAMA demonstrated that giving hormones to postmenopausal women who already have heart disease may actually put them at greater risk. Then there's the biggest HRT negative of all -- the increased risk, over time, of developing breast cancer.Still, if a woman decides to pursue HRT, there are plenty of alternatives to Premarin (see sidebar). Research has shown that soy, vitamin E, exercise and stress reduction are all capable of reducing hot flashes. Also, acupressure and acupuncture have been shown in several studies to be effective for hot flash relief. Vaginal dryness, dry skin, hair and nails respond to increased consumption of essential fatty acids found in fish oil, nuts and seeds (flaxseed, in particular).Several medicinal herbs have also been shown to be effective for treating the symptoms of menopause -- black cohosh root, red clover, dong quai, and chaste berry, to name a few. According to the June, 1996 issue of American Health, Asian women seem to have fewer menopausal symptoms than Western women, and some researchers believe this may be due to their diet, which is naturally high in phytoestrogens. There are numerous plants with estrogen-like qualities, including corn, carrots, apples and oats. Soybeans and soy-bean-based products such as tofu, soy milk and miso are thought to be particularly potent estrogen enhancers -- meaning they increase estrogen production in the body. Boron-rich foods, such as prunes, plums, strawberries, peaches, cabbage, apples, asparagus, figs, and tomatoes appear to increase the body's ability to retain estrogen.Most of all, explore all the options available. As animal activist Mary Tyler Moore noted, "Is it right to mistreat pregnant horses, collect their urine and slaughter their foals as unwanted by-products, all for human use, when modern medicine has found natural-plant or synthetic substitutes? The FDA has approved similar drugs that are plant-based or synthetic. I've switched, and I feel great."Moore launched a national campaign to expose horse abuse and urged women to boycott Wyeth-Ayerst Inc. and its parent company, American Home Products. Some of their products include Advil, Aleve, Anacin, Anbesol, Black Flag, Caltrate Plus, Centrum, Chap Stick, Chef Boyardee, Dimetap, Dristan, Easy Off, Jiffy Pop, Neet, Pam, Preparation H, Polaner Fruit Spread, Quick and Easy, Sani-Flush, and Woolite.***Sidebar One: Speak OutTo voice your opinion on Premarin, write or call Wyeth-Ayerst and its parent company, American Home Products:Joseph M. Mahady, President Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories P.O. Box 8299 Philadelphia, PA 19101 1-800-666-7248.John R. Stafford, President and CEO American Home Products 5 Giralda Farms Madison, NJ 07940-0874 Phone: 973-660-5000 Fax: 973-660-7026***Sidebar Two: Some alternatives to Premarin:The following is a list of synthetic alternatives to Premarin: - Climara by Berlex -- from beets and yams. - Estinyl by Schering -- totally synthetic Estrace by Mead Johnson Labs, a division of Bristol-Myers - Squibb -- yams and soybeans - Estraderm by Ciba -- sweet potato - Estratab by Solvay -- soy and synthetic - Estratest by Solvay -- soy and synthetic - Menest by SmithKline Beecham -- Mexican yams or barbasco - Ogen by Upjohn -- vegetables sources - Ortho-Est by Ortho-McNeil -- yams - Tace by Marion Merrell Dow -- synthetic estrogen - Provera by Upjohn -- soy

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close