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Barbara Seaman: Muckraker for Women's Health

Friday, October 17, 2003

Barbara Seaman has made a career out of investigating the health hazards of hormonal medicine. In our Journalist of the Month profile, we look at what inspired her work and the success of her efforts.

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Barbara Seaman has made a career out of investigating the health hazards of hormonal medicine. In our Journalist of the Month profile, we look at what inspired her work and the success of her efforts.
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Barbara Seaman

Editor's Note: Barbara Seaman, a pioneer in the women's health feminism movement, a prominent activist and leading journalist, died on Feb. 27, 2008, from lung cancer. Women's eNews profiled her in October 2003 in tribute to her achievements on behalf of women and her fierce investigations on the health hazards they face.

(WOMENSENEWS)--During the Second World War, the Nazis experimented with a bold, new drug by slipping it into the soup of Jewish inmates at Auschwitz.

The plan was to secretly sterilize the prisoners as part of the Nazis' drive to racially "purify" Germany. The drug, liquid estrogen, was a precursor of the Pill.

The Nazis' soup scheme was just part of what journalist and author Barbara Seaman calls "The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women," the title of her latest book, published this year by Hyperion.

The practice of slipping women drugs without their knowing the consequences is an experiment, she argues, that is still going on, not by Nazis, but by large corporate interests and complicit doctors, with an eerily similar disregard for women's rights to acceptable drug testing standards.

The revelation of the Auschwitz deception and the Nazis' unsavory role in developing the Pill is the kind of muckraking journalism that has made Seaman a leading U.S. advocate for women's health.

Since her 1969 book, "The Doctors' Case against the Pill," published by Hunter House, Seaman has persistently taken on the medical establishment and powerful pharmaceutical companies, exposing their drive for profit at the expense of women's health.

"The U.S. drug industry's responsibility is to employees and share holders. It's the doctors who have the duty to the patients. Too many of them let themselves be snookered, by the gifts and flattery of the drug (representatives) and the misplaced faith in certain eminent doctors and medical professors," Seaman said in an interview with Women's eNews. "If I could tell a good study from a bad study, I have the right to expect that doctors would also do their homework."


Passions for Writing, Justice Begin at Home

Born in Depression-era Brooklyn, Seaman acquired a passion for social justice that came from her father; a love of writing and literature that came from her mother; and a drive to stop health-industry abuses against women that came from two profoundly disturbing experiences.

Her mother, an English teacher, motivated her by saying she wasn't as smart as some of her students, in particular one girl, Ruth Bader. "It made me feel better when she grew up to be so smart," Seaman said of the formidably intellectual U.S. Supreme Court Justice Bader Ginsburg.

Her parents belonged to the once-thriving socialist Jewish community in New York. But they expressed the fierce independence that rubbed off on their daughter when they returned from their Soviet Union honeymoon denouncing Stalin. That did not rest well with some comrades in Brooklyn.

They thought Seaman's father sold out when he worked for New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as the chief financial officer and helped develop the city's first welfare program. During LaGuardia's legendary reading of the funny papers over the radio during a New York newspaper strike in 1945, Seaman was one of the children sitting on his knee at City Hall.

At Oberlin College in Ohio in the 1950s at the height of the McCarthy era, she had a slight interest in medicine that had been instilled by her uncle, a doctor. But her first shocking experience laid out her future as a champion of women's health.

Under pressure to market infant formula, doctors discouraged breast-feeding in the 1950s. In 1957, Seaman told her doctor said she would feed her newborn son anyway.

He ignored her and prescribed a laxative breastfeeding mothers should never take. Her son nearly died.

"He recovered, but in one sense I did not, for I would never again trust a doctor blindly," Seaman wrote in "The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women."

The second incident came in 1959 as she watched her 49-year-old aunt dying of cancer. Her doctor told Seaman not to take the estrogen-based drug Premarin. "Don't take it. Please don't ever take it," he said. "You may have the same susceptibilities."

That conversation inspired Seaman, who had begun writing for small women's magazines, to begin work on her first book, "The Doctors' Case against the Pill."

The book shook up the medical establishment. It put Seaman in the 1970s pantheon of feminist stars, though some accused the then-married Seaman of being blinded by her middle-class lifestyle to the point that she could not understand the issues faced by poor women.

But they didn't argue with her book, which showed the Pill posed risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. It also showed that very poor women in Puerto Rico were used in the Pill's early testing at very high doses, without thorough study. Several died of apparent heart attacks, with little medical attention and no autopsies.

The book led to Congressional hearings in 1970. The U.S. Senate barred women harmed by the Pill from testifying. Protesting women interrupted the hearings, an event known as the Boston Tea Party of the women's movement. After the hearings, birth control pills carried warning labels and for the first time the Federal Drug Administration allowed input from patients as part of the drug's regulation.

Science Magazine said the book spurred the women's health and patients' rights movements. The New York Times wrote: "Barbara Seaman triggered a revolution, fostering a willingness among women to take issues of health into their own hands."

The Hite Report on the Family called her "one of the most influential women in the twentieth-century women's movement" and New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler said she was a "national role model" who "has saved the lives of countless women."

But Seaman made enemies too. A reviewer from The Journal of the American Medical Association called it "a strange book . . . I cannot in all good conscience recommend it for either the public or the profession."

Pharmaceutical companies pressured magazines to stop running Seaman's articles and columns by threatening to pull advertising. So she wrote on a completely new subject: a biography of Jacqueline Susann, the author of "Valley of the Dolls" whom Seaman saw as a tough advocate for women's rights, though firmly ensconced in popular culture.


Returning to Investigating Hormonal Medicines

In "The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women," Seaman has returned to the subject of her first book: the dangers of hormonal medicines and the cavalier way they are tested and peddled to women.

"They have been used, in the main, for what doctors and scientists hope or believe they can do, not for what they know the products can do," she writes. "Medical policy on estrogens has been to 'shoot first and apologize later' . . . Over the years, hundreds of millions, possibly billions of women, have been lab animals in this unofficial trial. They were not volunteers. They were given no consent forms. And they were put at serious, often devastating risk."

British scientist Charles Dodd had been working on estrogen five years before the Nazis. When he learned of their intent he published his formula in 1938 to keep them from controlling the world market for hormones, Seaman reports.

Within months, thousands of drug companies and doctors worked on the formula. "Products made from chemicals that mimicked the feminizing effects of a woman's natural secretions were marketed fresh out of the lab," Seaman writes. They've been sold since to slow aging, stop hot flashes and avoid pregnancy or miscarriage.

What was rarely acknowledged then, and wouldn't be now if not in large part for Seaman's work, is that estrogen drugs can cause cancer, blood clots and other diseases. Dodd pointed out the risks and by 1941 they should have been well known.

In 1942, Ayerst Laboratories introduced its estrogen-based Premarin (from pregnant mares' urine) in the U.S. It has been one of the most profitable drugs in history.

Sixty years later, a five-year study on the synthetic estrogen Prempro (composed of estrogens and progestin) with 16,608 women was stopped when it became clear that the hormones increased the risk of invasive breast cancer and cardiovascular disease at a rate that clearly outweighed any benefits. There were fewer cases of hip fractures and colon cancer--benefits not considered worth the risk.

The findings vindicated Seaman.

Looking back on her career, she said: "I just started out to try and give women plain facts that would help them to make their own decisions and not have to rely on authority figures. I didn't start out to be a muckraker."

Countless women are grateful that, when it came to their health, she did become one in the best tradition of journalism.

Joe Lauria is a freelance journalist whose work appears in the Boston Globe, the Sunday Times of London, The Business and other publications.

For more information:

The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women:
Exploding the Estrogen Myth:
http://www.hyperionbooks.com/books/2003spring/greatestexperimentwomen.htm