By Rachael Wong
An objectifying and offensive study measuring the attractiveness of women with endometriosis has finally been retracted from the medical journal Fertility and Sterility.
The unethical and pointless peer-reviewed Italian study, Attractiveness of women with rectovaginal endometriosis: a case control study, has been widely criticised by the medical community and women with endometriosis since it was first published in 2013.
One in 10 women suffer from endometriosis, a serious, long-term condition, in which tissue grows outside the uterus, causing pain, scarring and sometimes infertility. Rectovaginal endometriosis is a severe form of the disease.
The study’s conclusion was: “Women with rectovaginal endometriosis were judged to be more attractive than those in the two control groups. Moreover, they had a leaner silhouette, larger breasts, and an earlier coitarche” – the age of first sexual intercourse.
The women taking in part in the study did not know or consent to being judged for their attractiveness.
The authors had consistently defended the study, saying that it would be useful to know if certain physical characteristics were more susceptible to severe endometriosis.
But critics, including American gynaecologist Dr Jennifer Gunter, have noted that while characteristics such as body mass index may be relevant to endometriosis severity, this is not what the study actually measured.
Dr Gunter wrote at the time: “I fail to understand how a small group of Italian doctors rating attractiveness of women with different stages of endometriosis contributes anything to medical science.”
“Fertility Sterility should be ashamed they accepted it for publication,” she wrote, adding: “Objectifying women has no place in medicine. It is even more horrifying that such a publication comes from a department on OB/GYN.”
Dr Rebecca Szabo, an Australian obstetrician gynaecologist and academic at the University of Melbourne, who has endometriosis herself, has been calling for the study to be pulled for seven years. However, she is worried that by retracting it without any apology or comments from the editor, the lessons from it will be lost.
"I think it's really important that we don't just retract this type of article because I don't want it to kind of be left to history," Szabo said.
"We need to have an open discourse, all of us, so that we can ensure good science, so we can ensure responsible science with integrity, and so that journals and authors do change so that we can be sure we're doing things with the patient at the centre, and with respect."
Sylvia Freedman, co-founder of the Australian patient advocacy group EndoActive, said it was “disgusting” and “heart breaking” that precious money had been wasted on such a study in an area that is so underfunded.
Women with endometriosis have also shared their disgust and frustration with the sexist study, saying that it is just another example of their pain not being taken seriously.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia