Access to reproductive health care is key to the wellbeing of women around the world. But for countless underserved groups—sex workers, immigrants, LGBTQ, and the uninsured, to name a few—access often doesn't exist.
A collective of radical bio-hackers and TransHackFeminists are out to reclaim gynecological medicine for those women, and for themselves. Under the name GynePunks, they're assembling an arsenal of open-source tools for DIY diagnosis and first-aid care—centrifuges made from old hard drive motors; microscopes from deconstructed webcams; homemade incubators; and 3D printable speculums.
Someone who's determined enough can make a full-on DIY biolab, with all the tools needed for routine tests involving basic chemistry, fluid analysis, spectroscopy, and other techniques. The GynePunks have gathered many of those tools and techniques, along with information on how to use them to test for things like yeast infections, cervical cancer, STDs, and pregnancy.
Included with the specific tools are reams of information and history on other aspects of reproductive health, from plant-based treatments for UTIs to resources for performing less dangerous self-abortions.
So far its reach has been mostly limited to experiments in hackerspaces and workshops. But ultimately, the GynePunks hope it will be easy enough for almost anyone with an internet connection and access to commonly available parts to take control of their reproductive health.
"This hacker mentality, for me, serves as a new way to understand the world around us, and gives us many tools to develop and generate our own technologies," Paula Pin, an early GynePunk, told me over email. "We understand our body also as a technology to be hacked, from the established ideas of gender and sex, to exploring the capacity to start researching ourselves, to find our own ideas and technologies, to help us be free, autonomous and independent from the system."
"I came from a country where abortion is still illegal. I had myself a risky illegal abortion in Perú 14 years ago."
The GynePunks first formed at Calafou, a co-op community and "postcapitalist ecoindustrial colony" set in the remains of an abandoned textile plant near Barcelona. Since 2013, members of a hackerspace there called Pechblenda have held workshops aimed at decolonizing the female body, exploring plant-based vaginal medicines, DIY lubricants, and improved sex toys.
Their work soon merged with that of global bio-hacking network Hackteria, Swiss open lab project Gaudilabs, and other nodes in a sprawling network of artists, scientists, researchers, and hackers, until GynePunks was born.
So what is a GynePunk? "The only criteria I would apply to consider yourself GynePunk is reclaiming your body," says Klau Kinky, another member of the movement.
"GynePunk is not a formed collective, it's a riot of bodies," she said. "And for that riot we'll use all the help, complicity, alliances and tools we can find."
Klau had been working on a personal research project into the often sad and violent history of gynecology, which became the initial inspiration for the GynePunk project. "What I found was horrible and set me on fire," she said.
Especially appalling to Klau were the stories of three black slaves in 1840's Alabama, named Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, to which much of modern gynecology traces its roots.
These three women became the living research subjects for J. Marion Sims, inventor of the speculum and the celebrated "father of gynecology." Anarcha, due to an apparently superhuman threshold for pain, was subjected by Sims to some 30 surgeries without anesthesia. Sims used what he learned from these and other experiments to treat his wealthy white patients (with anesthesia), laying foundations for many of today's gynecological practices.
Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey's stories go largely unrecognized, while statues commemorate doctors whose work was based on their suffering. The GynePunks champion reclaiming reproductive health from that history. For example, they've renamed the Skene's Gland (named after another 19th century gyno) to "Anarcha's Gland." Because really, does it make sense that a gland linked to the female orgasm is named after some guy?
The echoes of gynecology's fraught relationship with the underserved lives on in more than a couple dead white dudes' names. Whether for non-binary folks, frequently faced by uncomfortable interactions surrounding their sexual histories with doctors who may or may not approve; high-risk communities for whom access is limited by insurance costs; even those privileged enough to have access only to see it constantly threatened—the fact remains that the OB/GYN office doesn't always feel like a place of healing.
"It represents, at least for me, some kind of purgatory, sometimes hell," says Klau. "I came from a country where abortion is still illegal. I had myself a risky illegal abortion in Perú 14 years ago. As a migrant I have been mistreated and insulted in Spanish gynecology rooms. So I'm involved in this work because it's something that my body needs, it's something vital, as a political struggle about taking back technologies, taking my body back and away from all this violence."
But is it practical to use open source technology to take over one's own health care, or even safe? So far the work is largely focused on diagnosis, and members of the collective are quick to note that what they're creating is far from a comprehensive solution. It's limited by some obvious factors—access to materials, a place to put them together, and the time to do it. But where the infrastructure does exist, and people are motivated to do so, it is very possible to establish some useful alternatives for self-care. As an example, Klau pointed to a pilot vinegar test program that's lowered cervical cancer deaths by some 31 percent among poor women in Mumbai's slums.
"Looking forward I would love to focus not too much only on diagnosis, but how to deal with the diagnosis made, how to heal and prevent," she said. "I think that the spread of what is happening here is starting to create an awareness that is creating new circles of people coming together to talk about their bodies and health."
Hacking a hard drive motor is more complex than a vinegar test, but the latter demonstrates that with simple tools a community can empower itself. The internet's reach is spreading, while maker spaces and fab labs are on a trend to become as ubiquitous as public libraries. As access to open technology grows and the places to experiment with it proliferate, it may come to provide increasingly viable alternatives.
"Most of our tools can be made from recycled hardware trash, basic electronic components and hot glue and cardboard," said Marc Dusseiller, a biohacker and member of Hackteria. The lab equipment and experiments he's describing (don't worry, none of the gyno tools for people's nether-regions are made of trash) are specifically designed to be put together by anybody. "In fact a lot of the basic science lab equipment is very easy to hack, or build yourself, maybe with limited quality and reproducibility, but great for the 'demystification of science,'" he said.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology defines underserved women as "those who are unable to obtain quality health care by virtue of barriers created by poverty, cultural differences, race or ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other factors that contribute to health care inequities." That's a lot of people whose needs are unlikely to be met by the existing system.
One possible solution lies in decentralized and freely available bodies of medical knowledge, resources developed by and for the people who need them most. Exploring such solutions can also underscore the shortcomings of mainstream medicine. The fact that tens of millions of women must perform their own abortions each year attests to the need for a more inclusive system. Until that system arrives, providing better tools and resources can step in where the existing one already fails.
"I think there will never be a final phase, the body is unlimited," says Klau, who closed our interview by quoting Audre Lorde: "There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."