The Pill Kills: Women’s Health and Feminist Activism

On December 16, 1975, a group of Washington, D.C. area women’s health activists held the first-ever protest at the headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The demonstration took the form of a “memorial service” to commemorate the thousands of women who had died from using the contraceptive pill and other estrogen-containing drugs, and to call attention to the “dangerous experiment” being performed on women. Protesters wore black armbands “to symbolize the deaths of sisters caused by unsafe drugs and hormones,” and carried signs reading, “The Pill Kills,” “Feed your pills to the rats at the FDA,” “Women are not chicks – or white mice,” and “Women’s Health, Not Drug Company Wealth.”1 The demonstration received nationwide media attention, and was included in the 1976 ABC television special “Women’s Health: A Question of Survival”, produced by Marlene Sanders.2

Today, we are more accustomed to seeing feminist protests that demand better access to birth control rather than greater oversight of contraceptive drugs and devices. For example, there is a movement to “free the pill” from the prescription and make it available over the counter in the United States in the same way as some forms of emergency contraception. Conversely, it is usually birth control opponents who hold demonstrations proclaiming that the “pill kills.” 3

Seaman speaking at press conference holding up a cervical cap in 1980. (Bettye Lane/WikimediaCommons)

The 1975 protest against the FDA was part of a longer tradition of women’s activism on behalf of consumer safety. Since the early twentieth century, grassroots activism by women’s organizations such as the National Consumers League played a critical role in the passage of laws protecting consumers from harmful products, including the first Food and Drug Act in 1906 and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.4 This vigilance by female consumers became especially strident in the 1960s and 1970s, when feminist health activists began raising concerns about products designed and marketed specifically to address women’s reproductive health issues. In 1969 journalist Barbara Seaman published the book-length exposé The Doctors’ Case against the Pill, which roundly condemned scientists, physicians, and the FDA for allegedly foisting a dangerous product on unwitting female consumers.5

A year later, a Senate subcommittee led by Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) investigated concerns that the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry were withholding important information about oral contraceptives from women. Members of the radical collective D.C. Women’s Liberation were in the audience and became outraged that no women were called to testify about their negative experiences with the Pill. Unable to contain their anger, the activists shouted questions from their seats: “Why weren’t we told about side effects? Why aren’t any women testifying? Why are you using women as guinea pigs?” and “Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and convenience?” When Senator Gaylord told them to sit down and be silent, they replied “We are not going to sit quietly! We don’t think the hearings are more important than our lives!”6

Denied the opportunity to testify at the Senate hearings, D.C. Women’s Liberation decided to hold their own hearings on the Pill. They circulated flyers advertising the event reading, “The Pill: Is It a Menace, A No-No, or a Girl’s Best Friend?” The group made it clear that they were not opposed to oral contraceptives, but that they objected “to unsafe contraceptives foisted on uninformed women for the profit of the drug and medical industries and for the convenience of men.” They extended their critique to include what they believed to be a paternalistic and condescending medical profession: “we will no longer let doctors treat us as objects to be manipulated at will,” they declared. D.C. Women’s Liberation’s actions eventually led to oral contraceptives with lower doses of estrogen and the introduction of the patient package insert, which informed consumers about the risks associated with birth control pills.7

Demonstrations against the pill and other estrogen-containing drugs also fostered the growth of the women’s health movement. Following the 1975 memorial service for victims of estrogen, activists formed the National Women’s Health Network to serve as the voice for women’s health in the nation’s capital. The National Women’s Health Network continues to develop strategies “to challenge dangerous drugs and medical devices, raise women’s voices for the health care we need, and ensure the sexual and reproductive health rights of all women.”8

Screen shot of the NWHN homepage. Visit to learn more.

As we face an increasingly hostile climate for women’s health issues in Washington, the work of watchdogs like the NWHN is more important than ever. For example, demand for intrauterine devices (IUDs) has grown exponentially because women fear they will lose birth control coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Those of us who remember the story of the Dalkon Shield IUD, which killed at least eighteen women and permanently injured hundreds of thousands of others in the 1970s and 1980s, may find it ironic that women are now clamoring for a device that was once an icon of women’s victimization by the pharmaceutical industry.9 The story of feminist activism on behalf of contraceptive product safety demonstrates the limits of framing discussions of birth control technology solely in terms of the ongoing battle between prochoice organizations and religious conservatives.

Notes

  1. Jean Horan and Tacie Dejanikus, “Feed estrogen to the rats at the fda, ama, drug companies,” Off Our Backs 5/11 (January-February, 1976), 12-13. Return to text.
  2. The First FDA Protest (1975),” National Women’s Health Network, accessed January 6, 2017.Return to text.
  3. Katie Walker, “On 50th Anniversary, ‘Pill Kills Day’ Exposes Health, Environmental Impact of Birth Control,” American Life League, May 14, 2010. Return to text.
  4. Gwen Kay, Dying to Be Beautiful: The Fight for Safe Cosmetics (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005), 3–5. Return to text.
  5. Barbara Seaman, The Doctors’ Case against the Pill (New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1969). Return to text.
  6. The Pill Hearings,” National Women’s Health Network, accessed January 6, 2017. Return to text.
  7. Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 127-28. Return to text.
  8. Celebrating 40 Years in the Movement,” National Women’s Health Network, accessed January 6, 2017. Return to text.
  9. Karen Hicks, Surviving the Dalkon Shield IUD: Women v. the Pharmaceutical Industry (New York: Teachers College Press, 1994). Return to text.

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