The 25th Anniversary of the Doctor's Case Against the Pill

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by: Amy S. Bloom a Network intern & P. Ellen Parsons, Ph.D, M.P.H., an editor of The Network News

Almost twenty-five years ago one woman set out on a powerful crusade to warn women about the dangers of the contraceptive pill. Barbara Seaman and her book, The Doctors' Case Against the Pill, unearthed some of the best kept secrets in women's health at the time. Many women had been suffering needlessly from blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, depression, suicide, obesity, and lack of sex drive. Unbeknownst to them, these were all side effects from the birth control pill. In The Doctors' Case Against the Pill, through touching personal interviews and rigorous scientific inquiry, Barbara Seaman exposed the dark side of a pill that drug companies claimed and many women believed to be a "miracle drug."

At the time of the book's publication in October 1969, an estimated 12 to 15 million women throughout the world were taking some kind of oral contraceptive. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved the pill for contraceptive use in 1960 without including any warning of its potentially harmful side effects. Therefore, women who elected to take the pill were making an uninformed and often damaging choice that could have been avoided. According to Sheryl Burt Ruzek in The Women's Health Movement: Feminist Alternatives Medical Control, Barbara Seaman called this lack of honesty a "basic violation of civil rights where men who are not at risk from reproduction, control women who are." In writing The Doctors' Case Against the Pill, Barbara Seaman became the first woman to expose these consequences and simultaneously ignite the fire which began the modern women's health movement.

The historic beginning of Barbara Seaman's interest in women's health occurred in a hospital room just after the birth of her first child. She, like the other mothers in the ward, had been given pills to take every four hours. When she inquired about the medicine, medical personnel refused to answer her. Her son became very ill, and eventually she learned that the pills were laxatives that were passing through her breast milk to her newborn son. The laxatives were freely given to new mothers because, in 1957, it was assumed that all women would use infant formula rather than breastfeed. It was very difficult to establish breastfeeding in a hospital environment, not only because of the laxatives, but because nurses would swab mothers' nipples with alcohol (which cracked them) and then paint them with nupercanal (the taste of which repulsed the infants). According to Seaman, "I found my vocation when I sold my first article on how to subvert the breastfeeding practices in hospitals to a magazine called Mother's Manual for $50 in 1960," right after her daughter was born. And so began Barbara Seaman's commitment to inform the public and address women's health needs. By 1965, she was writing multiple columns for women's magazines, such as Ladies Home Journal, Brides Magazine, and Good Housekeeping. She also developed a large following and appeared on many television and radio talk shows.

From her readers, Seaman received a large number of inquires about the newest form of contraception, the birth control pill. Originally, women had been ecstatic about the ability to control contraception themselves. In her book, Seaman claims that many women hoped the pill would be the contraceptive for which they had all been waiting. However, the pill's' side effects soon darkened their hopes by plaguing their bodies with dreadful complications. Because of the stunning responses and urgent need expressed by these women, Seaman set out to write the book, The Doctors' Case Against the Pill, in hopes of exposing all the information was published.

In 1969 the first edition of TDCATP was published. Because of its large readership, several foreign editions were also published in Germany, Holland and England. Seaman's book put the personal experiences of women into the political arena. The private stories of women's suffering from taking the contraceptive pill became the political substance of the women's health movement. Her book, even though widely read, was subject to much criticism, mostly from those with a monetary interest in promoting the pill the drug industry, the population controllers, and physicians. Some women were concerned that criticism of the pill would limit contraceptive options or thought that the book was an overreaction.

The Doctors' Case Against the Pill became the source of widespread controversy. As a result of drug industry pressure, Seaman was fired from her columnist positions. Although prescription drugs were not yet advertised in the mass media, many drug companies with interests in the pill had over-the-counter divisions that used their advertising clout to have Seaman removed as a columnist. However, this controversy also stimulated major changes in the lives of some women. Suddenly the personal lives of these women had become the topic for political discussion. And, unintentionally, the book became the catalyst for the modern women's health movement. Soon Senator Gaylord Nelson took an interest in Seaman's book, and the famous pill hearings began. Seaman was an active participant with Nelson's staff in preparation for the hearings. As a result of these hearings, patient packet inserts were placed in every pill packet to warn women of its possible side effects.

For women in general, The Doctors' Case Against the Pill opened up an arena that had previously been closed to them. Women became aware of their rights to information about drugs and devices that their were using. The realized that they could question the long established power structure which had raised false hopes and withheld vital information about oral contraception. They began to demand to be heard on the health issues, which affected their bodies. This drive for change in the health world spearheaded by Barbara Seaman eventually inspired her and four other equally determined women (Alice Wolfson, Belita Cowan, Mary Howell, and Phyllis Chesler) to found the National Women's Health Network, which today still strives toward its founders' ideals.

November/December 1994 Network News

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