Last night I had the privilege of receiving a National Women’s Health Network’s Barbara Seaman Award for Activism in Women's Health. The National Women’s Health Network created this award to honor one of their founders, Barbara Seaman. Barbara died this year after a lifetime of research, activism, courage and love. The room was filled with Barbara’s family, friends, and allies.
I never had the privilege of meeting Barbara, but knew about some of her work, including her book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill. This book and her activism exposed the serious health dangers posed especially by the first generation of the birth control pill. Indeed, Barbara Seaman’s work probably saved my own mother’s life.
I knew that my mother had nearly died on the pill and this past weekend I asked her to recount her experience. In about 1970, after having two children, she went on the pill. Sometime after that she began experiencing headaches so hideous that she begged my father to put her out of her misery. After this happened for the second time she went to her internist. He asked her to describe the symptoms. She explained them in detail. He listened. When she was done the doctor passed her a note. On it was the recommendation that she see a psychiatrist. Fortunately her period stopped altogether prompting her to go back to the gynecologist who had prescribed the pill. He recognized the problem immediately. She was developing a blood clot in her retinal artery. He told her if she didn’t stop taking the pill she would die.
It is very likely that he made the right diagnosis because of Barbara’s work bringing the pill’s risks to the attention of everyone, including the doctors who were so avidly and uncritically prescribing it in those days.
One of the things that is so striking and resonant about Barbara Seaman is the fact that her research exposing the risks of the pill required her to challenge not only obvious opposition – the pharmaceutical companies, but also people we would expect to be her natural allies – birth control and sex education advocates. Barbara was challenging the pill’s safety at a time when abortion was still illegal, and people were desperate for a magic bullet that would enable women to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
The truth is hard sometimes.
So much of the work that Pregnancy Justice does is to challenge prevailing medical myths and junk science –whether those myths involve claims about c-sections and fetal monitors, drug use, or drug treatment. We too find that both opposition and allies sometimes find it hard to believe the scientific evidence, and the medical truths.
Barbara Seaman was of course doing much more than exposing medical risks. She was advancing the radical idea that women should be truly informed about their health and the medications they are prescribed, that doctors and elected officials should listen to the real experts on women’s health issues – the women whose health was at stake. She was working to empower women to act as their own advocates and tirelessly urging them to think critically about their health care and the latest medical miracle.
Last night I learned a lot more about Barbara Seaman. I learned about her life-long friends in the struggle for women’s rights and health, and about new younger friends who she had mentored and encouraged. I learned that she was warm, loving, and generous to her colleagues and allies, constantly making connections and building bridges across generations, ideas, and forms of activism.
It was such an honor to receive this award, and to recognize that I am part of Barbara Seaman’s legacy. My congratulations to Gina Arias, the Program Director for Empowerment and Wellness at Housing Works in Brooklyn, NY, who also won this award. My thanks to the National Women’s Health Network for the award and for all that they do – including allowing Pregnancy Justice to represent them in many ongoing challenges to the use of junk science and to the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women.