Not as Directed

You know that little information booklet you get with your prescriptions? How about the warning labels on the medications themselves? Well, if it weren’t for Barbara Seaman you might not get that information at all. Seaman, a writer and activist, made a career of speaking up for women, and trying to ensure that their health concerns were taken seriously, but her work lead to patient’s rights reforms that men benefited from as well.

In 1969, Seaman published her first book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, in which she discussed the potentially life-threatening side effects of the birth-control pills being offered to women at the time. Those pills contained very high levels of estrogen — 10 times the amount of hormones necessary to prevent conception, according to Seaman — which could cause serious complications such as heart attacks, strokes, and even cancer. Seaman argued that the pharmaceutical companies and some doctors were aware of these risks, but weren’t informing their patients. The book was unpopular in the medical community, but it spurred Congressional hearings in 1970 that led to the introduction of the first warning labels on prescription medication, as well as mandating that patient information packets be given out with medications. Birth-control pills today contain significantly lower doses of estrogen.

In 1975, Seaman along with four other women, founded the National Women’s Health Network to raise awareness and advocate for women’s health issues. Two years later she published Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones, becoming the first voice to challenge the prolonged use of hormone replacement therapies for menopause, nearly three decades before a Women’s Health Initiative report confirmed that HRT increases rates of heart attacks, stroke, breast cancer, and dementia, among other medical issues. The danger of hormone replacement therapy was a personal issue for Seaman, whose aunt died of cancer that her doctors believed was caused by the estrogen she was taking for hot flashes.

In her 2003 book The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women she wrote, “Medical policy on estrogens has been to ‘shoot first and apologize later’ — to prescribe the drugs for a certain health problem and then see if there is a positive result. 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.”

Taking on pharmaceutical companies came with a price. Seaman was dropped by several mainstream magazines she wrote for because drug companies threatened to pull their ads. But Seaman continued writing and speaking out. She wrote several other books over the years, including Lovely Me, a biography of Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann. (Seaman believed Susann was a feminist, even if Susann herself didn’t know it.) She died February 27 at her home in New York City. She was 72.