The Pill Hearings (1970)

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by Amy Bloom a former Network Intern

Alice Wolfson is a veteran political activist who first became interested in health in the 1960's when she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study English, history, and audiology in England. There, for the first time, Alice Wolfson remembers viewing the medical establishment with a critical eye. Soon afterwards, Wolfson became involved in the anti-war/ draft movement, and eventually joined the first "women's group" in New York City. Wolfson claims that women's health issues, especially population control and abortion, were vital to the women's movement agenda. She describes the time fondly, full of vigor and ardent desire for change, openly calling herself a "radical" and a socialist at the time. She remembers standing in front of hospitals protesting the hazardous abortions being given to women and realizing that the medical system provided a microcosm for understanding women's relationships with their bodies. It occurred to her that the paramount issues for the women's movement were really about control over women's bodies. Until women gained that control, feminist changes would be impossible. It became obvious to Wolfson then that the private nature of women's health experiences were a barrier to feminist organizing. She believed that the key to making changes was to openly publicize the problems that women suffered silently for so long.

Around the same time, Barbara Seaman brought the dangers of contraceptive pill use to the attention of Senator Gaylord Nelson, and hearings were called in January of 1970 to investigate the problems Seaman raised in her book, The Doctors' Case Against the Pill. Many women experienced severe side effects from the use of the pill, such as decreased sex drive, weight gain, heart problems, blood clots, and depression, but did not know that oral contraceptives were the cause.

Alice Wolfson and other women who had been involved in abortion demonstration decided to attend the hearings. Wolfson herself suffered from hair loss for many years as a result of contraceptive pill use. Armed with their experiences and years of frustration, Wolfson and a group of determined women headed for Capitol Hill.

Once at the hearings, they were struck by the complete absence of any testimony from women based on their experiences with the birth control pill. Instead, "experts", most of whom were male, testified about the safety of the contraceptive pill for women's bodies. Dr. Hugh Davis, who had written the foreword for Seaman's book, testified as the "kickoff" witness for regulation of the pill, and Dr. William Spellacy testified about the connection between the pill and the rise of blood fats called triglycerides. Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) organized various people to testify for the opposition. In particular, Dr. Elizabeth Connell argued that if informed about the hazards of the pill, women would stop using any method of birth control at all. Connell claimed that would result in more unwanted pregnancies or "Nelson babies". Still, not one woman's voice was heard explaining her experience taking the pill.

Finally, the silence was broken by a strong Alice Wolfson who jumped up from the audience and asked why there were no women testifying. Immediately all the press, their cameras, and notebooks turned away from the hearing and into the audiences as Alice Wolfson demanded that women's experiences be considered as testimony.
Barbara Seaman and Alice Wolfson met at a break during the hearings. Throughout the rest of the Nelson pill hearings, the two women organized other women to position themselves in the audience and protest outside Congress shouting their concerns about the pill. They also decided to create a network across the United States to educate women about potentially harmful side effects of the pill.

As a result of the Nelson pill hearings, a pamphlet was to be placed in every pill packet warning women of the risks of oral contraceptives. Unfortunately, for another few months these women had to continue to fight to have the information physically placed in every packet. Barbara Seaman remembers that even after the warning information was included, many doctors did not give it to their patients. For a while, the necessary warnings about the contraceptive pill were dispensed only by clinics. According to Seaman, women did not actually see the information inserts in the pill packets for another few years.

Through this effort Alice Wolfson and Barbara Seaman developed the idea of "informed consent" for patients. And from this not so humble beginning, the women's health movement gained its first stronghold in the political arena and around the country. Later, Barbara Seaman and Alice Wolfson would be joined in their work by three other women, Phyllis Chesler, Belita Cowan, and Mary Howell, who together would found what eventually became known as the National Women's Health Network. The incredible joint efforts of Barbara Seaman and Alice Wolfson gave voice to women's demands for control over their bodies in Washington, DC and throughout the country. Wolfson maintains that the publicity of the protest at the Nelson hearings was the key to rousing women to their feet. The problems women experienced with their bodies finally were made public and thus legitimized in the eyes of the general population. Eventually many women's health organizations formed and the women's health movement began in full force to work towards identifying, publicizing, and solving women's health issues. Wolfson continues to argue that as long as women's health issues remain hidden in the dark, the opportunity for change is trapped behind a closed door. Our responsibility as women's health advocates is to fight continuously to expose the concerns women have about their bodies and to demand appropriate and necessary reforms.

Jan/Feb 1995 issue of the Network News

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