How The Pill Gave Birth to the Women’s Health Movement

Only a latter-day Rip Van Winkle could avoid knowing that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of Enovid, the world’s first birth control pill. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles have marked this anniversary.

Many incorrectly credit the pill with giving birth to feminism. As Elaine Tyler May notes in the current issue of Ms., the pill didn’t start the feminist movement but was in the right place at the right time:

The timing could not have been better. The feminist movement gained momentum just as the Pill became available. With the ability to control their fertility, women could take full advantage of new opportunities for education, careers and participation in public life.

But in the midst of all this celebrating, we’ve neglected another anniversary: 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of U.S.  Senator Gaylord Nelson’s congressional hearings about the pill’s safety profile, which arguably did launch the women’s health movement.

That launch received a giant shove from Barbara Seaman, a magazine writer who published a book called The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill in 1969, and Alice Wolfson, a then-student and feminist activist. Seaman’s book documented medical risks of the pill–such as blood clots, decreased sex drive, mood disorders and certain cancers, and she alleged that the pharmaceutical industry had suppressed such information. Sen. Nelson was investigating other allegations against the pharmaceutical industry and read Seaman’s book, which motivated him to take on the pill as well.

At the time of the hearings, Wolfson was part of an activist collective known as D.C. Women’s Liberation. In discussing whether or not to attend the hearings, Wolfson and several other members discovered they all had experienced negative side effects of the pill, which their physicians had not warned them about. That revelation led to something bigger. As Wolfson later wrote in her memoir, “We went to the Hill to get information. We left having started a social movement.”

At the Nelson pill hearings, as they soon became known, medical experts delivered testimony about the known risks of synthetic estrogen, one of the main ingredients in birth control pills. No pill users were on the agenda. The only woman who testified was Dr. Elizabeth Connell, who expressed the fear that if dangers of the pill were publicized, women would give up birth control entirely. Connell said she worried that would lead to an explosion of unwanted pregnancies, or “Nelson babies.”

Alice Wolfson says she doesn’t remember the exact tipping point in the hearings that prompted her to speak up, but I like to think it was the moment when a medical researcher testified, “Estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat.” Wolfson and other women raised their hands politely to comment, but when Sen. Gaylord refused to recognize them, they began shouting their questions.

Why weren’t we told about side effects?

Why aren’t any women testifying?

What happened to the women in the Puerto Rico study?

Why are you using women as guinea pigs?

Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and convenience?

The feminists immediately had the attention of reporters, and a movement was born. Seaman and Wolfson met during one of the breaks in testimony, and eventually worked together to create the National Women’s Health Network – still a vibrant and vital advocacy organization for women’s health.

The Nelson pill hearings eventually led to lower doses of estrogen in the pill (today’s oral contraceptives are about 1/10th the strength of Enovid) and perhaps, more importantly, the introduction of patient package inserts, PPIs. The new FDA requirements resulted in the inclusion of printed information about risks, ingredients and side effects in pill packets, and eventually in all pharmaceuticals.

Women’s health activists went on to work for tampon safety regulations in the 1980s, resulting in an FDA mandate for consistency of absorbency ratings and warnings regarding tampon-associated Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS); withdrawal of fen-Phen diet pills in the 1990s; ongoing revisions of the ACOG guidelines for VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) and so many other issues in support of women’s health, safety and well-being.

Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/486046904/ // CC BY 2.0
Cross-posted at re:Cycling, the blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

Comments

  1. I've never used the Pill – I was concerned about giving a Dr control over my contraception. Sadly, the Pill has been used to control and take advantage of women. As a young Australian woman in the late 70's/80's, most GP's were male and a full gyn exam was "required" for the Pill. (annual bimanual pelvic, recto-vaginal exam, breast exam and two-yearly pap test) I knew none of those things were actually clinically required for the safe use of the Pill – all it called for was your medical history and a blood pressure test. Women who refused these exams, were then denied the Pill. I decided not to use the Pill.
    Also, the well-woman exam is not evidence based and is more likely to harm you. Today in Australia none of those exams are required for the Pill – the linking of the Pill and gyn exams was broken down around 15 years ago. Now the well-woman exam is not recommended at any stage of life in asymptomatic women. I'm thankful I took the time to do my own research and refused those unnecessary, invasive, uncomfortable and potentially harmful exams.
    Still in the States, it continues – women are routinely coerced into unnecessary and potentially harmful gyn exams and cancer screening to get the Pill.
    Pap tests are a voluntary cancer screening test that legally and ethically requires your informed consent. Cervical cancer is rare and few women benefit from testing – around 0.45% in Australia and 0.65% in the States. The hidden downside – this test is intrinsically unreliable and condemns large numbers to unnecessary biopsies and harmful over-treatment after false positives. In Australia almost 78% of women will be referred at some stage for colposcopy and usually some sort of biopsy, in the States it's 95%…some women are left with damage that can lead to infertility, miscarriages, high risk pregnancy, premature babies, more c-sections and psych issues.
    As a low risk woman, I have always declined pap tests…
    I firmly believe the Pill has been used by the medical profession to control and take advantage of women and many women have been harmed, mentally and physically, as a result…
    It is shameful the coercion continues in the States…even though an article appeared recently in an American newspaper – "Women after birth control get unnecessary pelvic exams"…nothing changes. In my opinion, American women are being used as lifelong income-generating machines and many will be harmed in the process…
    The facts can be found at Dr Joel Sherman's medical privacy forum under women's privacy issues – in the side bar you'll find some great references by Angela Raffle, Michael Baum and Richard DeMay.

    Doctors know this is all completely unnecessary, harmful and means many women will use less reliable methods to avoid the abuse – some will fall pregnant, have abortions, miscarry, have ectopic pregnancies or deal with adoptions. In my opinion, this is a huge abuse of women's rights, health and bodies.
    The Pill should be readily available over-the-counter – an unplanned pregnancy, abortion etc carries far more risk.

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