After a well-known physician unwittingly sparked my interest in birth control, I dived into the rabbit hole of hormonal contraceptive research. The number of diseases linked to The Pill shocked me. What’s more, some of these associations dated back over 50 years.
There’s a tendency to discount early research on The Pill because we’re told the first generation pills were completely different. They contained very high doses of estrogen, but today’s pills are safe because of the lower dosage. At least, that’s how the story goes. It’s a faulty premise I will discuss in future posts. Even if it were true and today’s pill was 100% safe, it would still be important to remember the pioneers who fought for a safer pill.
The Pill met virtually no resistance on its path to FDA approval thanks to impeccable timing. The sexual revolution had just crossed paths with fears of a looming population explosion. People across the political spectrum were excited about the promises of this little miracle pill. Consequently, all eyes focused on The Pill’s efficacy. Safety didn’t even register as an afterthought until three courageous people turned the spotlight on the growing chasm that separated The Pill’s promises from its reality.
The Antiheroes of Birth Control
Barbara Seaman was a feminist and a tenacious journalist whose groundbreaking book, A Doctor’s Case Against The Pill, inspired the Nelson Pill Hearings. These congressional hearings, called by Senator Gaylord Nelson, examined whether The Pill had been proven sufficiently safe before being released to the masses. Another author who covered The Pill extensively and was frequently cited at the hearings was Morton Mintz, medical reporter for the Washington Post.
Barbara Seaman: The Feminist
Barbara Seaman’s passionate investigation of synthetic estrogens began as a young woman after her Aunt Sally died of uterine cancer at the age of 49, presumably from taking Premarin. The doctor warned the women in her family that they should never take such drugs. The warning inspired her to build a career fighting synthetic hormones and the “Don’t worry your pretty little head” mentality that prevailed in the medical industry. She continued the mission until her death in 2008. Along the way, she learned that there were many prominent physicians who shared her concerns about The Pill.
As her classic book went to press in 1969, Ms. Seaman wrote a letter to Sen. Nelson. She suspected he would be interested because he was the chairman of a committee currently investigating the drug industry. Her letter can be seen in full at the Jewish Women’s Archive linked above, but here are some key excerpts:
“Never before in history have so many millions of people taken such a powerful and unnecessary drug.”
“You cannot long knock any natural system out of balance without doing some harm, – whether it shows up immediately or years later. Furthermore, many of these pill-caused metabolic disturbances are progressive. The longer a woman stays on the pill the more her laboratory tests are altered.”
“I believe that many of the women using the pill would switch to alternative methods if they knew the extent of the already-documented body pollution the pill is causing.”
Why has the suggestive evidence about the two most frightening possibilities – cancer and genetic damage, been generally withheld from the public, including physicians?
She bolstered her argument with quotes from revered physicians like Dr. Harry Rudel, one of the developers of The Pill, who admitted: “The pill is something we entered into with the best of faith, something we truly believed affected only ovulation and fertility. It was a relatively small dose of a drug, and it appeared that it was not affecting anything except fertility. Then as we began to look, we began to see that we are influencing many systems in the body.”
She carried things a step further with a quote from Dr. Philip Corfman of the National Institutes of Health, who said, “There is no organ or system of the body which, upon examination, has not been found to be affected by the pill.”
Morton Mintz: The Reporter
As medical reporter for the Washington Post, Morton Mintz won many prestigious awards for his 1962 reports on birth defects caused by Thalidomide. In 1965, he turned his attention to The Pill. Many of his stories were referenced and can be found in the appendixes of the Nelson Pill Hearings. His dispassionate, ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ approach provides the perfect counterbalance to Ms. Seaman’s style.
When I first contacted Mr. Mintz, he began the conversation with a caveat. “I’m 93 and have forgotten mountains of stuff.”
However, the mountains of stuff he did remember were fascinating. He said that, as a reporter, he had no opinion of whether The Pill was safe or unsafe. “What concerned me was the stunning inadequacy of the evidence of safety that the FDA had in hand when it approved the pill.”
In fact, he famously called it a “scientific scandal” in one of his Post columns. When he presented the facts of the approval to the new FDA Commissioner Robert Goddard on Face the Nation in 1967, the commissioner admitted that the evidence had been insufficient, and that he couldn’t say whether he would have made the same decision. This was a stunning admission that Mr. Mintz recalled fondly, “I was invited on such shows to challenge the likes of the Commissioner of the FDA and the chairman of Philip Morris with, I egoistically thought, wonderful results… Now all we get is Newt Gingrich and the like.”
Long after the television lights faded and the headlines about the Nelson Pill Hearings disappeared, Mr. Mintz was the only major press member to stay on the story. His pill coverage continued until 1977, when he was moved back to the Supreme Court. He learned later, from a friend at the New York Times, that he had been reassigned because a well-connected woman at the Post had gone to the editor and said she was “sick and tired” of his stories on The Pill, “…she and her friends used it and knew it was safe.” Her anecdotal ‘proof’ was enough to have the final committed journalist taken off the beat.
The authenticity of Mr. Mintz’s work resulted from a true desire to be able to say The Pill had been proven safe. In the introduction to his book, The Pill: An Alarming Report, Mr. Mintz explains that he and his wife are members of Planned Parenthood, and,
“Nothing could have pleased me more than to have found that The Pill was free of hazards. However, the answers made it overwhelmingly clear that safety had not been established.”
I’m grateful to Mr. Mintz, not only for his enduring work, but for putting me in touch with Ben Gordon. As he passed along the contact information, he told me that Mr. Gordon was the lead staffer for Senator Nelson, and had put together the pill hearings. He added, “Ben’s 102-years old, but still sharp as a tack.”
Ben Gordon: Lead Staffer for Senator Nelson
Senator Gaylord Nelson inherited Ben Gordon along with the Subcommittee on Monopoly from Senator Russell Long. Mr. Gordon had spent ten years on Capitol Hill prior to working with Senator Nelson, and the senator trusted him implicitly.
Mr. Gordon assembled the roster of doctors to testify at the hearings, wrote the opening statements, and generally did all the legwork behind the scenes. Throughout the proceedings, he sat at the table next to Chairman Nelson, and frequently chimed in with questions and comments. With Senator Nelson passing away in 2005, Mr. Gordon is one of the few living people who can give a first-person account of the inner workings of the hearings.
He told me about his first meeting with Ms. Seaman after they received her letter, and how he had thought he would call her to testify. Upon reading her book, he decided it would be better to go with the doctors whose studies she cited. He said he has always had a policy to avoid indirect testimony because it is too easily picked apart.
If you’ve followed Kerry Gretchen’s posts on the hearings, the excerpts read like a who’s who of Ms. Seaman’s favorite doctors. Even with ‘direct testimony,’ Senator Bob Dole eagerly tore into physicians who suggested The Pill had safety issues. According to Mr. Gordon,
“Dole was on our committee, and when he came, there was no question he was representing the industry.”
Taking Up the Torch
As a result of the hearings, The Pill became the first medication ever required to include an information booklet for patients. Unfortunately, the oft-ignored booklet also meets informed consent requirements, and may explain why so few doctors take the time to personally warn patients about side effects.
In the aftermath of the hearings, drug manufacturers also rolled out new, lower-dose versions of The Pill, and claimed they were safer. Again, these statements were made without adequate testing, but this time, the claims went unchecked.
As proud as he is of the hearings, Mr. Gordon admits he is surprised that no other politician has ‘taken up the torch.’ When I asked Mr. Mintz whether he thought today’s journalists shared his sense of duty to protect citizens, he replied,
“Have you ever seen an editorial condemning corporate misconduct other than financial shenanigans? I can’t recall any.”
Perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s been 50 years! Surely, today’s pill has been proven safe.”
That’s a reasonable assumption. However, it’s dead wrong. The maker of today’s most popular brand of birth control pill paid out $1.69 BILLION to settle over 8,000 lawsuits as of February 2014. You needn’t go any further than the personal stories shared on this site to know the number of injuries and deaths continues to grow.
The truth behind Dr. Corfman’s statement remains,
“There is no organ or system of the body which, upon examination, has not been found to be affected by the pill.”
Yet, our politicians and journalists are no longer interested in the conversation. Sadly, neither are the feminists or even the women who take The Pill. It seems as though we have forgotten that these are in fact very strong medications – synthetic chemicals with serious side effects.
We clearly can’t count on our ‘thought leaders’ to lead on this topic. The only way they will care again is if we, the people, reignite their interest. I’m just a single voice on a small stage (a man no less), but I’ve decided to do my part to take up the torch. And that begins with these posts on Hormones Matter.
Next, I will look at a forgotten history of synthetic estrogen that should have warned us The Pill is unsafe at any dose.