Barbara Seaman (1935–2008)

Barbara SeamanBarbara Seaman, an author, and patients’ rights advocate who was one of the first people to bring women’s reproductive health to wide public attention. She was an energizing influence on hundreds of younger writers and organizers for nearly half a century. Barbara Seaman persistently challenged the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies by exposing their drive for profits at the expense of women’s health.

In 1960, Barbara Seaman introduced a new style of health reporting that centered more on the patient, and less on the medical fads of the day. She was first to reveal that women lacked the information to make informed decisions on contraception, childbirth, even breast-feeding (in an age where infant formula companies claimed their products were nutritionally superior to mother’s milk). She chose a maverick’s path for herself, but was always appreciative of the achievements of her colleagues.

In 1967–68, Seaman, a graduate of Oberlin, won a Sloan-Rockefeller Science Writing Fellowship at the Columbia University School of Journalism. While there she began her first book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, which was published in 1969. The book was groundbreaking; it alerted women with information about the serious, potentially even fatal risks of oral contraceptives, which contained high doses of estrogen. Doctors routinely failed to inform women about the risk which include:  heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, cancer and suicidal depression.

The Doctors' Case Against The PillThe book became the basis for a US Senate hearing about the safety of oral contraceptives in 1970. Young feminists repeatedly disrupted the hearing, demanding to know why patients were not testifying. These demonstrations were widely covered by the international press; they are looked back upon as the “Boston Tea Party” of the women’s health movement. As a result of Seaman’s book, and the brouhaha that followed, a warning to patients was placed on oral contraceptives, the first on any prescription drug. The warning informed women about risks generally and clotting disorders in particular.

The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill” was credited with inspiring a generation of women, who had long been discouraged by male doctors from asking too many questions, to take control of their health care. Barbara Ehrenreich would later write that “in 1969, Barbara Seaman proved that women can talk back to doctors — calmly, rationally, and scientifically. For many of us, women’s liberation began at that moment.” For her work, Ms. Seaman was often described in the popular press as “the Ralph Nader of the pill.”

After the 1972 publication of her second book, Free and Female, Seaman was cited by the Library of Congress as the author who raised sexism in healthcare as a worldwide issue. Her third book, Women and the Crisis In Sex Hormones, coauthored with Gideon Seaman, persuaded the Secretary of HEW to convene a government task force (on which Seaman served) on an estrogen called DES (diethylstilbestrol) which caused cancer in the daughters of women given it by their doctors to prevent miscarriages.

Seaman became a columnist and contributing editor at Bride’s Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and Ms. Magazine. She also contributed op-eds and reviews to newspapers, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsday, and consulted for TV medical programs such as ABC’s “FYI,” which won a special Emmy for daytime programming.

After her first three books, The New York Times wrote that she had “triggered a revolution, fostering a willingness among women to take issues of health into their own hands.” In 1975, Seaman co-founded the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) in Washington, DC, with Alice Wolfson, Belita Cowan, Dr. Mary Howell, and Dr. Phyllis Chesler.

In the 1980s, Seaman was, to an extent, blacklisted by pharmaceutical advertisers in women’s magazines. In 1995, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill was reissued in a 25th-anniversary edition. In a cover story, Science Magazine named it as the book that fueled women’s health activism, patient information, and a “blossoming of women’s health research,” while the Journal of the American Medical Association assigned it for review — 27 years after original publication — to a doctor with a major financial conflict of interest, who dismissed it as “a strange book not particularly recommended. I cannot in all good conscience recommend it for either the public or the profession.”

A major contribution of Barbara Seaman — whom I befriended in her later years — was her singular decades long effort to get the facts about the serious potential risks of hormone-replacement therapy to the women who were being harmed by their doctors who prescribed HRT widely:

The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen MythThe Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth (2003) describes her pioneering battle to bring out the truth about the long battle against hormone replacement therapy.

Seaman said, “I didn’t start out to be a muckraker. My goal was simply to try and give women plain facts that would help them to make their own decisions, so they wouldn’t have to rely on authority figures.” In doing so, Judith Rosenbaum and Karla Goldman note in their article, “8 Jewish Women Who Changed the World”, “she focused world attention on sexism in healthcare and revolutionized women’s health research and reporting.” (Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2005)

She was an enduring heroine of the women’s movement; her relentless pursuit of the medical profession to come clean and fully disclose what evidence there is to support widely prescribed chronic drug regimens. With four other women, Ms. Seaman founded the National Women’s Health Network, an advocacy group based in Washington, in 1975. The steadfastness of her commitment to a field of endeavor that she herself had created was remarkable in so many ways, not least for the generousness that seemed to come easily to her towards the women, and even some men, who in ways large and small would come to join her in the struggle.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1998, the 40th anniversary of the birth control pill, she spoke about its long history:

“It may be the most-studied pill we have, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need more study. There’s an awful lot we still don’t know. There’s still a yellow light of caution. It’s blinking a lot more slowly than it was, but it’s still blinking.”

A demonstration of enduring biased journalism is Liza Mundy’s review of “The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women,” in The Washington Post (2003) which The New York Times saw fit to transcribe in Barbara Seaman’s obituary: “Seaman is a conspiracy theorist by temperament and training,” Ms. Mundy wrote. “In her presentation, every drug company is working against the interests of its patients, and every journalist who fails to question this or that bad study has probably been bought off; she uses the phrase ‘organized medicine’ in what seems a direct echo of ‘organized crime.’”

In a career that lasted four decades, Barbara Seaman will be best known for bringing women’s health to the forefront of the national consciousness.