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Writer publicized women’s health issues

Times Staff Writer

Barbara Seaman, a writer and health activist whose groundbreaking 1969 book that warned against the dangers of the birth control pill is widely credited with launching the modern women’s health movement, has died. She was 72.

Seaman died of lung cancer Wednesday at her New York City home, said her son, Noah Seaman.

In her first book, “The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill,” Seaman exposed the serious and little-known side effects of the high-estrogen pill prescribed at the time. Women weren’t warned that the pill could cause heart attacks, strokes, depression and a host of other ills.

Her investigative work prompted Senate hearings in 1970 that led to a warning label on the drug and the mandatory inclusion of patient-information inserts.

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When women who had been harmed by the pill were barred from testifying at the hearings, they fought back by constantly interrupting, calling out questions such as “Why isn’t there a pill for men?” and “Why are 10 million women being used as guinea pigs?” Seaman wrote 30 years later in the New York Times.

Those acts of “feminist disobedience,” as Seaman called them, are often portrayed as ground zero of the women’s health movement.

Judy Norsigian, an author of the pioneering women’s health book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (1973), told the Los Angeles Times last week that the protests were “the beginning of women’s voices being heard in women’s health.”

“It was an extraordinary moment, and Barbara was responsible for getting that movement off the ground,” Norsigian said.

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With four other women in 1975, Seaman founded the National Women’s Health Network, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

According to Cynthia A. Pearson, the network’s executive director, “the kind of journalism that Barbara started doing back in the 1960s . . . affected most of the women in this country. It led to more women in medical school, more written information in patient’s hands, the breaking down of rules against dads in the delivery room. It was profound.”

Carol Downer, who co-founded the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center in 1971, said Seaman’s high-profile support was invaluable.

“We were very grass-roots and she took to us and smoothed the path for us over the years,” Downer said. “She was just a hub of the women’s health movement. She brought the best out in all of us, and she had an impact on women’s health around the world.”

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The 1957 birth of Seaman’s first child greatly influenced her career path. When she told her obstetrician that she planned to breast feed, he responded that she “didn’t have the right personality for it, too educated,” she wrote in a statement for the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Her doctor assumed that she would follow his advice and prescribed a laxative that she inadvertently passed on to her son through her breast milk. He nearly died.

“He recovered, but in one sense I did not, for I would never again trust a doctor blindly,” Seaman wrote in her 2003 book “The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth.”

By the early 1960s, she was a health columnist for such magazines as Brides and Ladies’ Home Journal. The first oral contraceptives were on the market, and Seaman was inundated with questions from readers who were experiencing distressing side effects. Her answers formed the beginning of her book and helped push for lower-estrogen versions of the pill that later became available.

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“I just started out to try and give women plain facts that would help them to make their own decisions and not have to rely on authority figures,” Seaman said in a 2003 interview with Women’s eNews. “I didn’t start out to be a muckraker.”

Her books included “Free and Female” (1972), which addressed women’s sexuality; “Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones” (1977), written with her second husband, psychiatrist Gideon Seaman; and “The No-Nonsense Guide to Menopause,” co-written with Laura Eldridge, to be published later this year.

One writing project stood apart, a 1987 biography of “Valley of the Dolls” author Jacqueline Susann called “Lovely Me.” Seaman said she was drawn to her subject because she saw Susann as an advocate for women’s rights who operated within the prism of popular culture.

Seaman was born Sept. 11, 1935, in New York City, the eldest of three daughters of Henry and Sophie Rosner.

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She credited her passion for social justice to her father, a public welfare administrator, and her affinity for writing to her mother, a high school English teacher.

At Ohio’s Oberlin College, Seaman received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1956. While completing a fellowship in advanced science writing at Columbia University in 1968, she started working on her birth-control book.

Seaman was married and divorced three times.

In addition to her son, she is survived by two daughters, Elana Seaman and Shira Seaman; sisters Jeri Drucker and Elaine Rosner-Jeria; and four grandchildren.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com


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