Over the last several months I have been reading and writing about the Nelson Pill Hearings. I was hired by the late Karen Langhart to dig through 1500+ pages of congressional hearing transcripts. Her daughter, Erika, died of blood clots caused by hormonal birth control and Karen wanted to know what the researchers, the FDA, and Congress knew about the risks associated with these hormones back then. This matter is close to my heart because I suffered a stroke at the age of 28 caused by the pill. Could Karen’s daughter’s life, and the lives of so many other young women, have been spared had Congress and the FDA heeded the warnings of the researchers at these hearings? What was the result of all this government time and money? What was the point and what did the hearings lead to? Karen believed that if women and their doctors today fully understood what doctors back in 70s understood, fewer women would choose hormonal birth control and if they did, the risks would be understood and the side effects could be recognized and treated earlier.
Based on my personal experience, and the experience of many of the women helping with our research, doctors don’t understand the risks involved with hormonal birth control. And I think we need to ask why. The testimony given by both industry and non-industry physicians and researchers is pretty damning. The fact that the information presented at the hearings has been largely ignored is infuriating. Why did my ER doctors send me home from the hospital twice when I presented with the exact stroke symptoms testified about at the hearings? Why, over 45 years later, do we still have doctors doubting the dangers of hormonal birth control and misdiagnosing women or worse, dismissing them completely? Why do women continue to suffer from side effects ranging from mood swings to death? And why after all these years are there no better and safer options?
This is by no means a complete account, but below I’ve compiled some of the most interesting, and sometimes shocking, testimony from the Nelson Pill hearings.
What Are the Nelson Pill Hearings?
Senator Gaylord Nelson scheduled these congressional hearings back in 1970 after a number of reports, books (especially Barbara Seaman’s “The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill”), and studies brought up concerns about the safety of the birth control pill.
In his own words (page 5923):
The aim of these hearings: First, whether they [birth control pills] are dangerous for the human body and, second, whether patients taking them have sufficient information about possible dangers in order to make an intelligent judgement whether they wish to assume the risks.
I should note that it was the feminists who demanded the hearings, expressly because of the safety issues. Consider whether that would happen today?
Doctors, scientists, and officials from the Food and Drug Administration testified over the course of two months. After the first few days of testimony, Senator Bob Dole implied that the hearings were biased against the pill, to which Senator Nelson responded (page 6021-6022):
These hearings will permit a presentation of all viewpoints respecting the pill, in the best balanced fashion that I know how… Every single company is invited, and if they want to have 5 days or 10 days, 8 hours a day, to present their case, I will give it to them if they want to come.
Members of the D.C. Women’s Liberation, led by Alice Wolfson, interrupted the hearings to ask repeatedly (until dragged away by guards) ”Why isn’t there a Pill for men?” and ”Why are 10 million women being used as guinea pigs?”
To this Nelson responded, “I stated in advance of the hearings that every viewpoint would be heard on this issue… There will be women who testify… I will give you all the time—if you ladies will come to see me—would you girls have a little caucus and decide which one will talk one at a time, we can then decide what ladies will testify. Your viewpoints will be heard, don’t worry about that.”