Copyright © 1999. All Rights Reserved
by FFWD Staff
On The Nature of Things with David Suzuki
March 11 on CBC-TV
Im one of those people the pharmaceutical companies would love to see drop dead. They would then use my pox-ridden corpse as a poster child for a "See-We-Told-You-So" campaign for the goodness of prescription drugs. I hate taking pills for a couple of reasons: (1) I am paranoid to the point of delusion, and (2) I think our bodies have a much gentler, saner hand at curing what ails us.
Unfortunately, when it comes to birth control, I have a hard time convincing my body to pretend it is pregnant in order to not really be pregnant. Which is the wonderful magic of the pill intended to be the emancipator of women, the saviour of men and the constrictor of family numbers. But, as a delightful NFB documentary informs us, all is not so wonderful, especially in the early days of this species altering drug.
The Pill tells the sordid story of the drive to bring this revolutionary hormone cocktail to market. Everyone thinks that the pill galvanized the womens movement because of the freedom over fertility, but as filmmakers Elise Swerhone, Merit Jensen Carr and Erna Buffie show us, the pill also pulled the womens movement together because of the mortal danger the birth control pill posed.
Using interviews and archival footage, The Pill shows women who were used as guinea pigs, the deadly side-effects that were ignored or discounted, and the undercurrents of eugenics that accompanied such a powerful birth control method.
"The film clearly indicates there were lots of pressures on making this drug work," says writer/co-director Erna Buffie. "It was a two-headed monster. On the one hand it answered the needs of women desperate to control their fertility, on the other hand it served the needs of the population control committee."
Only two other films have been made specifically about the birth control pill one was based on personal stories, and the other was basically an ad for the pill makers. This is the first time a film looks at the big picture. The producers even managed to get interviews with the Puerto Rican women on whom the original high-dose pill was first tested.
"We werent sure we would be able to find those women, but one of our researchers spoke Spanish and we sent her to Puerto Rico," explained Buffie. "She suggested we put an ad in the San Juan newspaper, we did, and women responded."
These women talk about knowing they were taking birth control pills, without knowing anything else about them, and about the women who died young without explanation.
Someone who was in the middle of the tempest at the time is Barbara Seaman, a journalist who wrote a book called The Doctors Case Against the Pill. That book got her fired from the magazine she worked for, and a concerted effort was made to have the book ignored by other media all the work of the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical company, makers of the pill.
Seaman is not only interviewed in the film, but she was able to give the producers leads to others who were involved, including getting the actual footage of the young women who disrupted the all-male senate hearings on the pill.
As Gloria Steinem says in the film, "The demonstrations outside the congressional hearings looking into the pill were the first time that there were demonstrations for women, on behalf of women, by women."
Those hearings resulted in more ethical testing practices, and for the first time patients were provided with warnings and information inside the packaging of their prescription drugs.
The birth control pills of today are considered safe by most, especially compared to the original, which had 10 times the amount of hormones, but this film isnt intended to make us rest easy.
"Youd like to imagine that that was then and this is now and everything has changed," says Buffie. "But what the film also speaks to is recent events related to genetics and biotechnology. We are still struggling with these issues of ethics. As a society we need to be vigilant about the need for strict regulations of the medical and pharmaceutical industry."
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