Embryonic Stem Cells – To Bank or Not To Bank? Part 2 (Periods!)

Following up on yesterday’s post about fetal blood and whether or not to bank what remains in the umbilical cord, allow the baby to receive the blood still contained within the placenta before clamping the cord or both, today’s post will explore the amazing discovery of stem cells within menstrual blood and their viability for treating illnesses of various kinds.

This incredible realization, presents an awesome opportunity to harvest and store stem cells in a way that is non-invasive, regularly available, easy to procure, cost-effective and free of the usual ethical concerns that plague stem cell research. In addition, the stem cells found in menstrual blood have been found to be highly proliferative – reproducing every 24 to 36 hours. While stem cells from ‘cord blood’ can be subcultured a maximum of 12 times, the stem cells found in menstrual blood have so far been subcultured up to 47 times. Also incredible to note is that the stem cells found in menstrual blood retain embryonic markers, meaning that they can morph into a wide variety of healthy cell types including heart, nerve, bone, cartilage and fat. When you think about the number of menstrual periods that the average woman will have in her lifetime (roughly, about 480), that is an incredible number of stem cells that could, theoretically, do an incredible amount of good. (Please note that the research I am drawing on – linked to above – was partially funded by a stem-cell storage company – clearly more research of a significantly more impartial nature is in order).

If you already use a Keeper or a Diva Cup (reusable menstrual cups) in lieu of the environmentally destructive, expensive and terribly unhealthy options produced by tampon and maxi pad companies, you are already doing most of the work. The only difference, if you were going to store and bank your menstrual blood, would be that you’d have to empty the cup at a doctor’s office and have the contents shipped via medical courier to your stem cell banking company.

Of course, if the motivation for storing your newborn’s cord blood has to do with a male partner (who is also the father of the baby)’s health, this is a less useful option, since the chance of your stem cells being a match with his are far less good than the chance of your baby’s stem cells being a match, which is still not 100%. Only a medical professional can advise you on the value of banking any blood – fetal ‘cord’ blood or menstrual blood – based on your family’s medical circumstances.

I have long been an advocate for greater openness and comfort with the subject of menstruation. Ever since acquiring my first Keeper (given to me by a former lay-midwife who knew that I was an impoverished student and an environmentalist) in 1997 I have felt more connected to my body, more aware of my cycles and more in tune with what ‘normal’ means for me. I am aware of changes in the colour, volume, consistency, etc. of my blood and I rely on my periods as an indicator of the health of my reproductive system. Even beyond those things though, our periods are a means of remembering our power – our power to create and sustain life, as well as our power to choose what is right for ourselves as individuals. With each period I am aware of my decision not to have become pregnant that month and celebrate the fact that I have that freedom and control over my body, which sadly, many women in the world today, still do not. For women who have been trying to become pregnant, their periods can be sad or disappointing to discover – a reminder of their inability to conceive. Despite this sadness, I feel that focusing on that period as a time of grieving – for the baby that was not conceived, for the wish that was not fulfilled – can be beneficial. A means of letting go of the cycle that has ended and ‘making room’ emotionally and psychologically for the next one. Too often the feelings of loss associated with a failure to conceive are overlooked or underappreciated in our culture. Perhaps if we could be more open about our periods, who could begin to talk more openly about these difficult feelings too.

In our culture, girls are generally taught to regard their periods with disgust or anxiety. Often referred to as “the curse” or discussed in purely negative terms, many girls and women wish they could do away with their periods altogether (and many do, by taking synthetic hormones that make them almost or completely nonexistent). Marketing of tampons and maxi pads avoids the subject of blood altogether: typically demonstrating absorbency with a clean, sterile-looking clear blue liquid. The obvious message is that even when we are talking about periods (a ‘necessary evil’ if we wish to sell menstrual products) we still cannot bring ourselves to talk about blood and uterine lining – clearly these things are too ‘gross’ for words (or pictures). Men too are taught to view their female partners’ periods with revulsion and disgust. By reflecting these values back to the women they sleep with, they reinforce the negative feelings that many women already have about their periods and by extension, their bodies. To be clear, these feelings are not the fault of the individual men and women who express them, almost all of us are socialized to feel this way growing up in North American culture.

The human body is a wondrous thing. The way our human bodies work together in physiological and chemical ways is nothing short of astonishing. The female body, in its ability to prepare for new life each month and then either sustain that life or, if no new life is created, to clear out the materials it has prepared, is particularly beautiful and powerful to my mind. Blood, and specifically menstrual blood, is not inherently ‘gross’ or ‘repulsive’; these are values that have been assigned to it as the result of our fears about our own bodies and additional fears about women and the power within each of us. By acknowledging the value of each period, by realizing the power that the blood itself contains and signifies, we can empower ourselves to take pride in our bodies and their abilities and we can refuse to accept the disempowering and misogynistic view of the female body and its processes as vile or base.

Perhaps this discovery of stem cells within menstrual blood will lead to a new era, one in which women can learn, without reproach or shame, to value each period, to see the blood they shed, not as waste, but as treasure, as a potentially life-saving substance that they can celebrate and take pride in.

***

I realize that this post brings me a significant distance from my usual talk of birth, but I believe that if we can learn to trust our menstruating bodies, perhaps we can learn to trust our birthing bodies just as well. I hope, dear readers, that you don’t mind the digression and that you see the logic in my thinking as I attempt to draw these issues together.

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