Sheldon J. Segal, 83

Sheldon J. Segal, 83; led team that developed Norplant

Sheldon J. Segal was a strong advocate of women's reproductive system rights.
Sheldon J. Segal was a strong advocate of women's reproductive system rights. (Population Council - Population Council)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sheldon J. Segal, 83, leader of the team that developed the contraceptive implant Norplant and several other birth-control devices used by millions of women worldwide, died Oct. 17 at his home in Woods Hole, Mass., of congestive heart failure.

Dr. Segal believed strongly in a woman's right to control her reproduction, and more than 120 million around the world have used a long-acting contraceptive developed under his guidance. In addition to Norplant, he also helped create the Mirena intrauterine device, copper-bearing IUDs and contraceptive vaginal rings, the last of which are undergoing safety and effectiveness testing.

He recoiled from suggestions by editorial writers and commentators that Norplant, which is surgically inserted into a woman's upper arm and releases the hormone progestin for up to five years, could be forced on mothers on public assistance or used to prevent teenage pregnancy on a mass scale.

"Hold everything!" Dr. Segal wrote in a letter to The Washington Post in 1990. "Norplant should never be used for any coercive or involuntary purpose. It was developed to enhance reproductive freedom, not to restrict it. . . . Those who suggest using Norplant for involuntary or coercive sterilization or birth control will find me leading the opposition."

Norplant works by inhibiting ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus, which makes it impermeable to sperm. It was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2002 after a number of court cases in which women said they had not been adequately warned of side effects, which included irregular menstrual bleeding, headaches and weight gain. Mirena, which was introduced in 2003, is an intrauterine device that delivers small amounts of hormone directly to the uterus.

Dr. Segal was not simply a technician who invented devices, but someone who cared about the safety and comfort of the women who used them, said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition.

She said Dr. Segal spent years persuading the Chinese government to switch from ill-fitting and single-size steel IUDs to flexible copper-bearing IUDs, a major improvement that also reduced the demand for abortions in the world's most populous nation. Germain was with him in Bangladesh in the 1970s when Dr. Segal returned from a tour of contraceptive clinics and had been appalled at the unsanitary conditions and lack of skill by the providers.

"He knew services didn't have to be delivered in that way, and he worked with the government to try to improve the quality of IUD delivery -- simple matters of basic quality control, but something Shelly was attuned to," she said.

Sheldon Jerome Segal was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 15, 1926, and enlisted in the Navy at 16, near the end of World War II. He graduated from Dartmouth College and received a doctorate in embryology and biochemistry at the University of Iowa in 1952. He joined the Population Council, a nonprofit research firm in New York, in 1956 and rose to direct its biomedical laboratories.

In 1961, he married the former Harriet Feinberg, a novelist. She survives, along with three daughters, Amy R. Segal of Newton, Mass., Jennifer S. Madden of Bedford Corners, N.Y., and Laura J. Segal of Watertown, Mass.; and seven grandchildren.

In addition to working at the Population Council, Dr. Segal formed the International Committee for Contraception Research in 1970. He left the Population Council eight years later for the Rockefeller Foundation's new division of population sciences. He returned to the Population Council in 1991 as distinguished scientist and chairman of its institutional review board.

He was an adviser to Congress, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, the World Bank and the European Parliament. He wrote or co-wrote more than 300 publications and served on the editorial boards of six scientific journals.

His best-known book was "Is Menstruation Obsolete?" (1999) with Elsimar M. Coutinho, which said monthly menstruation is not medically beneficial. In 2003, he published "Under the Banyan Tree: A Population Scientist's Odyssey," which recounts the logistical and political challenges of population control and argues for the education of girls.

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