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Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Morning After

It happens every time you open a bottle of cough syrup – a very long piece of paper folded dozens of times and covered with very small words flutters to the ground. It lists all the dosages, side effects, contraindications, and problems associated with the drug you are about to consume. Have you ever wondered how that little piece of paper came to be there?

Dozens of years ago, back in 1960, a radical feminist, a supporter of legal abortion and a woman’s right to control her own body, was given a new medication as she lay in the hospital following the birth of her first child. The medication was Enovid, and it was the first oral contraceptive on the US market.

This feminist, Barbara Seaman, discovered that the contraceptive her obstetrician was trying to shovel into her posed a major health threat. Within a year, the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, the manufacturer of the drug, had in its secret files 132 reports of thrombosis and embolism and eleven reported deaths. How many women were injured and killed without ever being reported in the medical system is, to this day, not known.

Though the medical literature had scattered reports of the problem, nobody wanted to talk about it. The Nobel Laureate Frederick Robbins told the American Association of Medical Colleges “the dangers of overpopulation are so great that we may have to use certain techniques of conception control that may entail considerable risk to the individual woman.”

The FDA acknowledged that the drug was hazardous, but refused to pull it from the shelves, and eventually pulled even the acknowledgement of its hazards. The women using it didn’t realize that the manufacturer had watched women die during the drug trials, or that they knew it caused deaths after its release.

It took nearly a decade for Seaman to gather sufficient evidence about the side effects of the birth control pill to write one of the most famous books in the history of contraception, “The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill”. The books used medical reports to document the enormous health hazards posed by the contraceptive pill. Both the drug companies and Planned Parenthood tried to stop its publication. As a direct result of this book, a Congressional committee convened to investigate. The committee ordered drug companies to include warning information with oral contraceptives, and all other drugs they produced. That’s why we get those little pieces of paper in our cough syrup boxes – because oral contraceptives have a history of killing women.

The drugs turned out to be so hazardous that all high-dose birth control pills were eventually pulled from the market to avoid the lawsuits. Even the second and third generation low dose contraceptive pills remain hazardous. The FDA itself admits women on estrogen and progestin are at increased risk for “getting blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, and gall bladder disease. For a woman with a uterus, estrogen increases her chance of getting endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine lining).” The FDA also admits that these hormones increase the risk of dementia.

The first oral contraceptive were tested in the 1950’s on Puerto Rican women who were too poor and uneducated to afford lawyers. Several died during the tests. But Puerto Ricans eventually got more educated, so the drug companies moved their field tests.

The British Broadcasting Commission released a documentary in 1995 demonstrating that Norplant trials had likewise maimed and killed hundreds of women in Bangladesh and Haiti, the poorest countries in the world. Haiti alone is so unstable that it had 14 coups d'état and 8 changes of government in the ten years leading up the BBC report. Through USAID, our government helped the drug companies fund the studies that blinded, crippled and killed hundreds of poor black women.

The US manufacturer of Norplant became the subject of a class-action suit in 1994. The suit asserts significant health risks, menstrual irregularities and other side effects occur in women who use the Norplant contraceptive system, including prolonged or extended bleeding, spotting, amenorrhea, irregular cycles, frequent cycles and anti-cycles. Other side effects can include headaches, nervousness, nausea, dizziness, enlargement of the ovaries or fallopian tubes, dermatitis, acne, change in appetite, blood vessel abnormalities, weight gain, hirsutism or alopecia and skin discoloration. These disruptions can last for months or years.

Well, it’s the morning after in America. Now Preven B is the hot new contraceptive. It is argued that Preven B will reduce the number of abortions. No one has bothered to mention that countries like England, where the equivalent of Preven B has been available as an over-the-counter drug for two years, has exactly the same abortion rate it has always had.

Instead, we discover the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one of the same groups who tried to shovel Enovid into Barbara Seaman back in 1960, supports over-the-counter sales of the high-dose birth control pill, Preven B. Now, Preven B has a higher drug dosage than the original birth control pill, the one which brought Congressional scrutiny and was pulled from the market because it killed too many women. And in a few weeks, any woman in the country will probably be able to self-medicate with it as often as she wants.

But we shouldn’t be concerned. After all, the experts recommending this work with the drug companies and the government. They’re here to help. Remember, ladies, what the gentleman did to you the night before bears no resemblance to what the drug companies will do to you the morning after.

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