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The Elephant in the Newsroom: Drug Policy and Michele Bachmann’s Migraines

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Ed. Note–This post originally appeared on August 1. We removed it briefly while pursuing an opportunity to speak with Rep. Bachmann about the questions posed below. Unfortunately, the Bachmann camp did not respond to our query. We welcome readers’ insights into the candidate’s stances on these issues and urge fellow bloggers and mainstream journalists to ask Bachmann about her approach to drug policy – and pain management praxis in particular – if given the chance.

Tucker Carlson: Trouble-Maker

Points has been investigating the regulation and increasing criminalization of opioid pain medications in the U.S. with posts like Siobhan Reynolds‘  on DEA meddling in pain management practices, Joe Spillane‘s on historical accounts of law enforcement interference in medicine, and Kenneth Tunnell‘s look at the first OxyContin scare. Conservative political news site the Daily Caller (run by formerly bow-tied pundit Tucker Carlson) alleged in late July that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann takes “all sorts of pills” to deal with “incapacitating” migraines. Since narcotic pain relievers are one of several tools in many a migraineur’s survival kit (as well as that of at least one president), that story got us thinking about how the congresswoman’s experience with chronic pain might affect her approach to drug policy. The response to the allegations also illuminates the way in which media discourses work to reproduce normative representations of gender and power, even when media commentators attempt to upend those discourses.

The Daily Caller’s source, a former Bachmann staffer, questioned her ability to run the country in the thrall of a debilitating “episode” (to the fainting couch!) as well as under the influence of the many, many pills she ingests to manage her pain. The anonymous former staff member warns that:

The migraines are so bad and so intense, she carries and takes all sorts of pills. Prevention pills. Pills during the migraine. Pills after the migraine, to keep them under control. She has to take these pills wherever she goes.

For her part, Bachmann released a letter from her doctor stating that she has her migraines under control and told the public that her condition would in no way impact her ability to act as Commander-in-Chief. But with the warning shot fired, the American news media whipped itself into a typical election-season tabloid frenzy. Is the Daily Caller’s source correct in assuming that migraines render Michele Bachmann unfit for the presidency? Or is this some kind of hit job and, if so, what kind?

While some declared the health of a presidential hopeful fair game, most commentators (a surprising majority of whom, myself included, also suffer from migraines) asserted that Bachmann’s headaches are really a non-issue, absent heavy narcotic use. Those who see no problem with digging through a candidate’s health records analogize the migraine issue to the doctor’s notes produced by Dick Cheney during his initial run for VP or John McCain’s release of substantial medical records in 2008. But bloggers and pundits on the right and left who see the issue differently have jumped forward to defend the candidate from sexist mudslinging. After all, migraines are about three times more likely to affect women than men, and a migraine, unlike McCain’s skin cancer or advanced age, will not kill its sufferer and leave Sarah Palin holding the highest office in the land. The claim that Bachmann’s migraines are stress induced sounds an awful lot like an underhanded way to argue that a woman just can’t handle the difficult job of commanding a country.

But even in stories that chastise other outlets for reporting the rumors through a sexist lens or that claim the issue has nothing to do with the messy stuff of gender, the narrative remains unchanged: Michele Bachmann is a powerful woman who is nevertheless the physiologically frail victim not only of the dreaded migraine disease but also of the news media bogeyman. Fox News comes off as if it were laying its coat over a puddle for her. Slate’s Dana Goldstein doesn’t seem to get the paternalism inherent in her suggestion that Bachmann isn’t getting the best treatment because she had to stop by urgent care centers a couple of times last year, as though the failure of a patient’s typical regimen is shameful or atypical (it is neither).

Critics trying to check their peers on blatantly sexist reporting have fallen victim to the notion that, as S.E. Smith at the blog Tiger Beatdown notes, women exaggerate or are unable to deal with physical pain; as a result, women – or those suffering from “women’s problems” such as migraine – are frequently denied adequate treatment for their pain (Google “migraine treatment” and count the number of times you are advised to take an aspirin).  I would add that women are also perceived as needing extra help from experts in dealing with their maladies, and this “help” is often offered in a patronizing tone from “experts” with no greater pedigree than Dr. Phil (exactly what does Dana Goldstein know about migraines that I don’t or can’t?). While Bachmann probably receives fine medical care, she is not immune to this paternalistic media chivalry. In her case, the medical advice doled out to the Googling migraineur is replaced by a cascade of protective news stories and opinion pieces that seek less to help Bachmann than to defend dominant notions of gender in electoral politics. Sure, she’s the congresswoman with the “titanium spine,” but she can still be leveled by a headache and shamed by the media fallout that accompanies that disclosure. Michele Bachmann thus becomes relatable – sharp and ambitious yet also feminine (even submissive) – in a way that Hillary Clinton never quite mastered.

The mainstream press – especially during an election year or the primary process – is basically a circus; it’s fun to ride the elephant, but no one wants to know how it got those scars and scratches on its back. However, someone has to ask the uncomfortable questions if we ever want to feel comfortable watching elephants perform at the circus – or electing representatives to advocate for us in government.

Michele Bachmann was not so eager to tell Points about her positions on drug policy (no, really; we tried).

And there are certainly important questions raised, or at least suggested, by Michele Bachmann’s migraines. For instance, it seems legitimate to ask if her experience with migraines would shape a President Bachmann’s policies regarding the prosecution of doctors who prescribe “too many” narcotics to the “wrong kind” of patient. Migraines are a qualifying condition for obtaining medical marijuana in California; would a President Bachmann be more likely to support a federal medical marijuana bill, knowing that people with pain similar to hers might get relief from the drug? Bachmann’s experience with migraines might also color her perception of narcotic prescription registries, which are intended to curb drug diversion but, civil libertarians say, violate the privacy of those who take narcotic drugs, among whom Bachmann may count herself. Would Bachmann better fund research on migraines and other chronic pain disorders? What about health care policy more generally? Would a President Bachmann allow the rest of America the access to doctors and drugs that has allowed her to effectively manage her health issues? (Looks like the answer to that one is a firm “NO!”)

Once upon a time, before President Bachmann deregulated the pharmaceutical industry...

Michele Bachmann has a sparse voting record on drug policy, and pain management issues are rarely put up for a vote. The House roll call for the Minnesota medical marijuana bill vetoed by Governor – and Bachmann primary rival – Tim Pawlenty is unavailable via the legislature’s website, and the only national drug-related issue on which Bachmann has voted is Merida Initiative funding. Aside from high-profile issues like medical marijuana, candidates are unlikely to be asked about the finer points of drug policy – particularly where chronic pain and narcotic drugs come into play.

When given such a perfect opportunity to ask about something as underreported as pain treatment, and as drug policy becomes increasingly important to voters, the media should use these tabloid-fodder events as launch pads from which to pose serious questions about issues that are rarely discussed because they affect people who are often invisible – like the 30 million Americans, most of them women, afflicted with migraines.


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