Saturday, March 10, 2012

Where are the women?

By Mary Claire Kendall

Carolyn Maloney asking "Where are the women?"
Photo: Evan Vucci / AP | Source: CNN

“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 morning-after abortifacients.

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 these problems.

No women were asked to testify at Nelson's hearing, even though they were the only ones taking the birth control pill.

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 insignificant.”

For three women participating in the Puerto Rico trials, the side effect was death; but they were never autopsied.

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 the Washington Examiner on February 22, 2012 and online on February 21, 2012

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