Your Pill is Safer Because of Her

In Buffalo, New York, a mother of three and a user of the contraceptive pill, Anne S., was suffering from attacks of dizziness and double vision. She also felt stiffness in her neck. Alarmed, she called her gynecologist and asked, "Is the Pill safe? Should I be taking it?"

Her doctor snapped, "Of course it's all right for you to take the Pill. If it weren't, I'd never have prescribed it."

Eight days later, Anne S. died of a stroke.

She was one of hundreds of women to die in the 1960s from taking the Pill. At the time, the Pill's dosage of estrogen was considerably higher than it is today, resulting in blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, depression, and cancer.

Ah, the 1960s. Remember when it was a given that doctors were men and nurses were women? Back then gynecologists routinely downplayed serious risks and side effects because, as one doctor explained at the time, his female patients were not capable of weighing the information. "If you tell them the symptoms they'll have them the next day." In a 1970s Newsweek-Gallup poll, it was revealed that two-thirds of the women taking the Pill had never been warned by their physicians of any hazards.

Barbara Seaman, who died of lung cancer today in New York City at the age of 72, rallied to educate people about the politics of the health care industry -- in connection with the Pill and so much more. Because of her, many lives have been saved. She was, in the words of Gloria Steinem, "the first prophet of the women's health movement."

Barbara was my role model and dear friend. Fourteen years ago, Barbara took it upon herself to mentor me, then a freelance journalist covering women's issues for various local papers and the occasional glossy magazine. I still can't believe my enormous luck that Barbara chose me as one of the young writers she had selected over the years to mentor. She read all my rough drafts and unfailingly suggested brilliant inserts, practically dialing the numbers herself of people she recommended I call for another live quote. Having been on the front lines of the women's lib movement, she knew all the leading activists and writers from that era and introduced me to Alix Kates Shulman, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Phyllis Chesler, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, and many others. Through her I also met many feminist activists and writers from my own generation, including Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards.

For many years, Barbara and I spoke on the phone for hours each day. It wasn't all serious talk about women's rights, although we certainly covered that territory very thoroughly. Barbara also loved to dish and she generously shared with me delicious tidbits about the endless people about town whom she invariably knew quite well. But as with everything else in her life, she did this with a good and generous heart, always looking for new ways to introduce people who didn't know each other but should have. Nothing seemed to give her greater pleasure than sparking a connection between two like-minded people, acting as matchmaker and catalyst for new ideas and events.

In the 1960s Seaman covered women's health for the Ladies' Home Journal and Bride's magazines. She received a steady stream of letters from readers who complained about problems they had with the Pill. "The most disturbing thing about my reader mail," she once remembered to me, "was that the doctors denied and tried to invalidate the women's experiences."

After poring through medical journals, Barbara found growing evidence of the drug's risks. Her book The Doctors' Case Against the Pill was published in 1969, exposing the fact women taking the Pill were human guinea pigs. The Food and Drug Administration had approved the drug as a form of birth control in 1960 even though only one study had been conducted, involving fewer than a thousand poor women in Puerto Rico, most of whom did not know they were participating in medical research and the overwhelming majority of whom had taken the drug for less than a year. Five of the women had died during the study.

Barbara did not want to ban the Pill, since many women wanted to use it and there were few other contraceptive options at the time. She simply wanted women to know what they were in for through full disclosure of the drug's risks.

This was not the first time that Barbara had witnessed male doctors dismiss women's concerns. In 1957, when she wanted to breast-feed her newborn son, her doctor discouraged her because at the time, infant formula was marketed even more heavily than it is today. Her doctor ignored Barbara when she told him she would do it anyway. He prescribed a laxative that breast-feeding mothers should avoid at all costs. Her son almost died.

With the Pill, she smelled not only incompetence, greed, and politics -- but sexism. And she paid for her nosiness. The magazines where she worked fired her after their advertisers complained about her book. But The Doctors' Case attracted the attention of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), who convened hearings, held January through March 1970, to investigate the full extent of the dangers.

Unbelievably, only men were allowed to testify. Not a single woman on the Pill, nor a single female medical expert, was given the chance to speak. A Washington, D.C.-based feminist group, D.C. Liberation, found out about the hearings and stormed the Senate. Members of the group, led by a recent Barnard graduate named Alice Wolfson, staged a demonstration and were removed from the chamber. Characteristically Barbara followed them, introduced herself, and invited them to lunch. "That was when the women's health movement was born," Barbara told me years ago. Barbara Ehrenreich later wrote that Barbara Seaman "proved that women can talk back to doctors -- calmly, rationally, and scientifically. For many of us, women's liberation began at that moment."

The demonstrations led to wide media coverage of the hearings, which caused women around the country to re-evaluate -- and reject -- their gynecologists' advice. Because of Barbara's efforts, the Food and Drug Administration ordered manufacturers of the Pill to insert warnings in each packet, despite vehement opposition from the manufacturers and the American Medical Association. Soon, women with higher risks than others -- for example, older women who smoked -- selected themselves out, and morbidity dropped off. Eventually the manufacturers were able to reduce the hormone dosage significantly. The amount of hormones in the drug was ten times what is needed for contraception.

The Pill hearings marked the first time that feminists rallied around health issues in general rather than just around the right to an abortion. The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, publisher of Our Bodies, Ourselves and its spin-offs, was founded in 1969 and burgeoned in the hearings' aftermath. In 1975, Barbara co-founded the National Women's Health Network, a non-profit advocacy organization that does not accept money from drug companies.

Barbara remained concerned about the health risks associated with hormone therapies and spent the rest of her life warning consumers to be skeptical of pharmaceutical claims. In her 2003 book The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth, she debunked received wisdom that hormone replacement therapy such as Premarin prevents heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, and other ailments. Indeed, several years ago a major study on hormone therapy was halted when it became clear that the hormones increased the risk of breast cancer and heart disease at a rate that far outweighed the benefits.

With Barbara Seaman gone, we have lost our singular health-care muckraker. As a result of her tireless activism, we are less naïve and ask tougher questions. We do our own research; we arrive at our doctor's office with printouts from the Internet; we get second and third opinions. We may not always choose to make the best health decisions, but at least we now know not to accept the claims of the drug companies and Food and Drug Administration at face value.

We can pay tribute to Barbara's life not only by remaining skeptical of the drug industry, but also by acting as a matchmaker whenever possible. If you know two people who don't know each other but should, introduce them. The more connected we are, the more we can shake things up when necessary.