Barbara Seaman (1935-2008): Pioneer in the women’s health movement

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Women’s health lost a powerful champion with the death of Barbara Seaman, an author, journalist and patients’ rights advocate, on February 27, 2008, at her Manhattan home in New York City, New York. She had been living with lung cancer.

Seaman was a founder of the women’s health movement in North America in the 1970s and paved the way for patients’ rights. She is best known for her writings on drug safety, particularly her early warnings about the dangerously high levels of estrogen in the first generation of contraceptive pills, and more recently, the overprescription of hormone therapy for menopausal women.

For sounding the alarm on the safety profile of these and other medications, and for insisting that there be proper warning labels on drugs, Seaman was publicly castigated and labeled an uninformed troublemaker. But, as with so much of Seaman’s work, time proved her both prophetic and deeply wise.

Her landmark book on hormonal contraceptives, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill (1969), initiated congressional hearings into the safety of birth control pills (1970) in the United States and catapulted women’s health issues into the national spotlight. By the 1980s, the dosage of estrogen in oral contraceptives had been drastically reduced.

The hearings she helped bring about also resulted in the creation of patient package inserts for all US pharmaceutical products. Moreover, her insistence on public participation encouraged the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to open all future hearings to the public and to include patients’ voices in the assessment of pharmaceutical products—something not yet the case in Canada.

As one of her friends wrote: “Her daring critiques, her courageous persistence in the face of major efforts to silence and discredit her, provide a model for many and gave us all strength to ensure that women’s voices be heard and our concerns taken seriously.”

In 1975, Seamen and four other women founded the National Women’s Health Network, a women’s health advocacy group based in Washington DC that continues to raise public consciousness and influence public policy on women’s health issues and concerns, as well as highlight the need for women to become knowledgeable about their bodies and care options.

Seaman was also one of the first to question the medicalization of women’s natural cycles, including the common practice of prescribing hormone therapy to “treat” menopause, raising concerns decades before the landmark Women’s Health Initiative study (2002) demonstrated that long-term use of hormone therapy significantly increases the risk of breast cancer and stroke, among other harmful effects.

In her book, The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women (2003), Seaman soundly demonstrates the failure of the FDA and the medical establishment to demand rigorous testing of hormone therapy before mass prescribing took place and castigates the pharmaceutical industry for putting profits above women’s lives.

Throughout her life, Seaman was never too busy, too battle-weary or too distracted to provide caring support for others. There was never a request for her insights, her review of some piece of work, her presence at some event that she rejected; her warmth and generosity of spirit and time are legendary.

Seaman’s crusading for women’s health and drug safety had a major impact beyond the borders of the United States and many in Canada also mourn her loss. We will miss this pioneer of the women’s health movement. We are all in her debt.

Abby Lippman is Professor of Epidemiology at McGill University and board member at CWHN; Anne Rochon Ford is Coordinator of Women and Health Protection; and Kathleen O’Grady is Director of Communications at CWHN (maternity leave) and Research Associate with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University. The authors have had a professional relationship with Ms. Seaman on various initiatives.

“Barbara Seaman (1935-2008): pioneer in the women's health movement”
Reprinted from, CMAJ 08-Apr-08; 178(8), Page(s) 988 by permission of the publisher.  ©2008 Canadian Medical Association