WASHINGTON -- Anyone looking for proof of the political clout
attached to women's health issues can find it in the place that
provides the truest test of such importance: the fine print of the
federal budget process.
The congressional committees that write the government's health-
research budget have studded their reports in recent years with
demands for more research on disorders, large and small, that
predominantly affect women. Such prodding has helped create a top-
level office in the National Institutes of Health to oversee
on women's ailments, and a similar post, deputy assistant secretary
for women's health, for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The government will spend more than $550 million this year on
breast-cancer research, which is expected to kill 44,200 Americans
1997 -- more than it spends to study lung cancer (160,400 deaths),
colorectal cancer (54,900), liver cancer (12,400) and Hodgkin's
disease (1,480) combined.
That, and more, is the reward for a decade of political and
scientific grunt work by women's groups and their allies in
And they say they are not through.
"We're playing catchup," said Joanne Howes, a partner in an all-
female lobbying firm here, which specializes in drumming up support
for research into disorders affecting women.
Catchup, in this view, means compensating for decades in which
researchers excluded women from critical tests of new drugs and, Ms.
Howes and others say, generally gave their health problems short
Not everyone fully subscribes to that view. But among the people
who count in Congress and the White House, there are few such
The allotment for women's health in the latest budget of the
Department of Health and Human Services -- which covers most
federally financed research -- is $2.3 billion, up 30 percent in
Advocates of specific diseases haven't done too badly either.
Take the case of the National Fibromyalgia Research Association,
which trumpets its success on its Web site: "Personally lobbied
Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield and staff, resulting in aggressive
wording in the U.S. Congressional Appropriations Committee's
recommendation to the National Institutes of Health regarding
Fibromyalgia, a cousin of chronic-fatigue syndrome, affects mostly
women. The institutes allotted $1 million for research three years
ago. Hatfield, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee
until his retirement last year, met with a senior NIH official last
fall for a briefing on the disorder. A top institute official later
sent Hatfield a letter announcing three new grants for fibromyalgia
research and plans for a fourth grant on a related issue -- sleep
How much sway such recommendations hold is anyone's guess.
Legislators swear they do not intend to play politics with
judgments. Dr. Vivian Pinn, the head of the NIH's Office of Research
on Women's Health, says politicians' pet concerns receive attention,
but are judged primarily on their merits.
"We certainly recognize these are important issues, and we look to
see if there really are gaps in our knowledge," she said in an
interview, but "the institutes really decide most of what they do on
a scientific basis for the most part."
Fibromyalgia is just one of a host of women's health problems
pointedly mentioned in recent Appropriations Committee reports,
almost always because of lobbying by constituents or interest
The House offers friendly advice to put "special emphasis on
grants relating to interstitial cystitis," an uncommon and
debilitating bladder condition, and to "pursue new projects" that
could help prevent or control diabetes in women. …