“What I want to know is, where
are the women,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, asked during last week's hearing
before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep.
Darrell Issa, R-CA.
The hearing focused on “the
administration's actions concerning freedom of conscience” and
government-mandated insurance coverage of birth control, tubal ligation and
Maloney asked a good question,
but for another day and hearing, focused on the topic of women's health. (The
Issa hearing essentially dealt with the right to spiritual health for all.)
That it echoes Sen. Gaylord
Nelson's January 1970 hearing, which focused on the pill's side effects, makes
it all the more poignant.
The Wisconsin Democrat had read
“The Doctor's Case Against the Pill” by Barbara Seaman, an author, journalist
and main founder of the women's health movement.
In her book, Seaman documented
the pill's ill effects, including weight gain, heart ailments, blood clots,
depression and decreased sex drive. Few women realized the pill was causing
No women were asked to testify
at Nelson's hearing, even though they were the only ones taking the birth
But, then the official path to
the pill's approval was equally dismissive of women's opinions. As “The Pill,”
an American Experience documentary production, reported, “after nine months of
testing, the medical director in Puerto Rico told (Dr. Gregory) Pincus that the
pill was 100 percent effective when taken properly. Nevertheless, she argued,
the drug caused ‘too many side reactions to be generally acceptable.’ Both (Dr.
John) Rock and Pincus disagreed. The adverse side effects, they believed, were
For three women participating
in the Puerto Rico trials, the side effect was death; but they were never
As Alex Sanger, Margaret
Sanger's grandson, summed it up, “They probably dismissed it in their mind, ‘Well,
there's something wrong with the patient,’ and there was nothing wrong with the
pill. They didn't want to hear about what might be wrong because they... just
felt so strongly that this pill was necessary for women's well-being.”
But, at the January 1970
hearings, a brave group of women didn’t let the scheduled slate of witnesses
keep them from speaking up in what became known as the Boston Tea Party of the
women's health movement.
Alice Wolfson, joined by a
group of feminists at the hearing, stood up, shouting a litany of questions: “Why
is there no pill for men?” “Why are 10 million women being used as guinea pigs?”
“Why had you assured the drug
companies that they could testify? Why have you told them that they could get
top priority? They're not taking the pills, we are!”
“Who is going to pay the
medical bills when a woman develops cancer of the breast and cancer of the
uterus?” “We are not just going to sit quietly any longer. You are murdering us
for your profit and convenience!”
With the cameras capturing and
heightening this historic moment, the hearing was soon adjourned.
As Wolfson told “American
Experience,” “we began to hear researcher after researcher—male after male—start
saying things about the pill. And then one ... said, ‘fertilizer is to wheat
what estrogen is to cancer.’ And I think at that point we practically dropped
dead, we were so shocked.”
Only one expert, Dr. Philip
Corfman of National Institutes of Health, affirmed that the women's concerns
were legitimate. In the late 1980s, Dr. Corfman finally convinced manufacturers
to withdraw from the market all oral contraceptive brands that contained more
than 50 micrograms of estrogen.
Where, indeed, are the women?
Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based
writer who was special assistant to the assistant secretary for health under
President George H.W. Bush.
Originally published in theWashington
Examiner on February 22, 2012 and online on February 21, 2012