Barbara Seaman, 72; Pioneer In Women's Health Movement

Barbara Seaman with a birth-control cervical cap at a 1980 news conference.
Barbara Seaman with a birth-control cervical cap at a 1980 news conference. (By Bettye Lane)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Barbara Seaman, 72, a writer and activist who challenged the safety of hormone replacement therapy and early oral contraceptives and became a central figure in the women's health movement, died Feb. 27 at her home in Manhattan. She had lung cancer.

The health movement of the 1970s urged women to educate themselves about their bodies and demand more control over their medical care. Ms. Seaman helped shepherd the movement by raising important, often overlooked questions about adequate testing for drugs.

She was also credited with helping to create the concept of patients' rights, particularly "informed consent" and proper warning labels on drugs.

Over time, she proved correct about the dangers of high doses of the female hormone estrogen in the earliest oral contraceptives. She also denounced hormone replacement therapy, which for decades was promoted as a magic bullet to keep menopausal women young and sexy.

Her books included "The Doctors' Case Against the Pill" (1969), which triggered congressional hearings into the safety of oral contraceptives, and "The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women" (2003), an expos┬┐ of hormone replacement therapy.

In 1975, Ms. Seaman co-founded the National Women's Health Network, an advocacy and watchdog group in Washington that worked to eliminate quotas for women in medical schools and give women the right to information about medical treatments and alternatives.

Ms. Seaman was among the first to question using hormone treatments to address symptoms of menopause, decades before the Women's Health Initiative released its long-term study in 2002 showing that such regimens significantly increase the risk of stroke, breast cancer and other diseases.

Vivian Pinn, a pathologist who directs the National Institutes of Health's Office of Research on Women's Health, said Ms. Seaman felt "vindicated" by the Women's Health Initiative study, for which she was an unofficial consultant.

"She was an advocate who challenged anyone she needed to challenge, including me, and recognized the importance of science" -- not just ideology -- "in responding to questions she raised," Pinn said.

Ms. Seaman was a self-described "muckraker" whose polemical language and approach were sometimes considered distractions by reviewers of her books. She invoked Nazi medical experiments when confronting pharmaceutical companies, the Food and Drug Administration and others in the position to research, market and approve hormone drugs for women.

Ms. Seaman said her tone was justified because she had marshaled evidence that the pharmaceutical industry suppressed or ignored negative clinical studies of their products.

She said she saw transcripts of meetings between contraceptive manufacturers and clinical researchers who knew of women's deaths that possibly resulted from the pill but who joked about tight girdles causing the fatal blood clotting. Ms. Seaman said she never took birth control pills.

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