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People & Events: The Senate Holds Hearings on the Pill (1970)

When the Pill came on the market in 1960, it was enthusiastically embraced by the medical profession and the public. But by the end of the decade, after a crisis over the drug Thalidomide (which was prescribed for morning sickness and caused birth defects) and increasing reports of potential health risks from the Pill, confidence in the drug was ebbing. In 1969 concerns came to a head with the publication of The Doctor's Case Against the Pill. In this controversial book, medical journalist Barbara Seaman combined the testimony of physicians, medical researchers, and women who had used oral contraceptives to build a case against the safety of the Pill and to indict the medical-pharmaceutical establishment that had marketed it.

Taking on the Pill
Shortly after publication, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson read Seaman's book. Nelson was in the midst of conducting hearings on the pharmaceutical industry, investigating abuses in the use of antibiotics, barbiturates and tranquilizers. After finishing Seaman's book, he decided to take on the birth control pill as well.

A Hearing Without Women's Voices
In January 1970 experts assembled in the stately Senate chamber and began giving their testimony on the hazards of the Pill. Alice Wolfson, a member of the radical collective D.C. Women's Liberation, was sitting in the audience listening to the experts. Her group had come to the hearings because they had all taken the Pill at one time or another and had experienced side effects. The group was outraged that their doctors had never informed them of the risks when they prescribed the Pill. As they sat in the chamber and heard one male witness after another describe serious health risks, they were furious that there wasn't a single woman who had taken the Pill there to testify.

Outrage on Two Accounts
After hearing one expert say, "Estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat," the women spectators could no longer contain their anger. They stood up and started hurling questions at the men on the dais. The feminists set the room abuzz when they demanded, "Why are you using women as guinea pigs?" and "Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and convenience?" When told by Senator Nelson to sit down and remain quiet, they retorted, "We are not going to sit quietly! We don't think the hearings are more important than our lives!" Although Senator Nelson was the driving force behind the hearings, the young protesters were so angered by his failure to include women in the hearings -- and by what they viewed as his patronizing behavior --that they went on the attack. The group decided to protest the structure of the hearings and the men leading them, in addition to speaking out about the medical dangers of the Pill.

Making National News
The feminists' grievances gained national attention. National television networks covered the proceedings, and Wolfson's group appeared frequently on the nightly news during the hearings. An estimated eighty-seven percent of women between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five followed the hearings. Eighteen percent of them quit taking the oral contraceptive as a result of the hearings.

Impact of the Hearings
In the hearings' aftermath, hormone levels in the Pill were lowered to a fraction of the original doses. A few years after the hearings, prescription rates rebounded, and the number of users in the United States peaked at approximately nineteen million.

The real impact of the hearings was not on Pill usage, but on the nascent consumer health movement. D.C. Women's Liberation succeeded for the first time in making informed consent a national issue. In the aftermath of the hearings, the U.S. government would require the pharmaceutical industry to include a patient information sheet with complete information on side effects in every package of birth control pills sold. The growing women's movement was prompting women to assert control over their bodies, and in doing so it changed forever the way Americans take prescription medications.





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