40 Years On, Women’s Health Group Still Educating

Lynda Waddington

Judy Norsigian, founder of Our Bodies, Ourselves, talks about the group's ongoing work to promote breastfeeding and birthing options and to provide evidenced-based health information that's not affected by corporate bias.

A great deal has changed in our nation and world during the nearly 40 years since a group of women met at a conference in Boston to talk about their medical experiences and share knowledge about their bodies. While the women associated with the group have never changed their primary focus of educating women about their own bodies and health, the changes — both outwardly and inwardly — have had an impact on how they approach their task.

"[When we started,] we were all younger," said Judy Norsigian, executive director and one of the founders of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which now does business under the name of their best-selling series Our Bodies, Ourselves. "No one had gone through menopause. … Of the group that incorporated in 1971, there were 12 of us and I was, at that time, 23 and one of the women was almost 39. She's now 75 and just about to be 76. It has grown with us and it is partly because we became older that we became interested in menopause and issues beyond the early years."

The original booklet, which put women's health in a new political and social context, was published in 1970 on newsprint, and quickly became a success. Three years later, the first commercial edition was published by Simon & Schuster. Since then, the book has undergone several revisions and has been translated into numerous languages. In 2006, the group published a new book focusing on menopause. Another book, this one with a focus on pregnancy and birth, is scheduled for release in March.

Norsigian came to Iowa on Saturday to serve as keynote speaker for the 2008 annual Choice Dinner in Iowa City, an event that benefits the Emma Goldman Clinic. She agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview following the event.

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"I think, over the years, the controversies have really varied too," she said. "We didn't have as much awareness of what the drug industry was doing early on. It has definitely grown in both its influence and its power. That's why we focus on things like advertising hype — whether it is drug or surgical procedures — and the importance of getting balanced information."

The Internet, she says, has opened many new avenues for women to learn about their health — not all of them necessarily good.

"There's a lot of bad stuff on the Internet, but there is also a lot of good stuff," she said. "You have to know the source of the information. Is it credible? Find out who is funding the website. Things like that can help you in deciding if the material really makes sense. We take no funding from the pharmaceutical industry. So do a number of other women's health groups like Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco and the National Women's Health Network in [Washington,] D.C. As such, you know there isn't a conflict of interest.

"There are some women's groups who do pull punches when it comes to being honest and open and calling a spade a spade. That's because they don't bite the hand that feeds them. So, that is a problem. Even groups who think they would never do that ultimately do. We know that about human nature and that's why we created this policy, even though that means it is harder to survive. You have less source of corporate money. We are very committed to keeping evidenced-based, commercially-free information that's not driven by corporate bias."

Even as the group has expanded to include specific areas of interest to women of certain age groups, Norsigian said they are also now re-focusing on some of the issues they struggled with from the beginning.

"We've been very concerned about a lot of the issues that we championed early on — midwifery, options for childbearing," she said. "We got them for awhile, and then they started to really reverse direction. For instance, breastfeeding rates and breastfeeding promotion was on the rise, and now — except in some places — there has actually been a trend in the wrong direction. There's this fear that women have that their breasts are going to look terrible if they nurse, so they won't nurse because of that. Or they are given these 'goodie bags' by the hospital that contain infant formula."

When considering what can be done to reverse the breastfeeding trends, Norsigian points to Portland, Ore.

"The one city that finally got rid of [hospital 'goodie bags'] is Portland," she said. "Also, last year Oregon passed the strongest breastfeeding legislation in the entire country. It's a real model for everyone else. That was a primary example of activists working together."

Working with other organizations and individuals — even those that may not be considered friendly — was a topic Norsigian discussed both in the interview and when she gave her keynote address. While speaking to the group, Norsigian recalled the story of a young woman from the evangelical community who wrote the front page article in The Nation that outlined the specific purpose assigned to Dr. W. David Hager when he was appointed to lead the Food and Drug Administration's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs. He was put there by the Bush administration for the sole purpose of ending emergency contraception, something which is now widely credited as a reason for the nation's reduced abortion rates.

"It was something that couldn't be proven until [Hager] inadvisedly admitted it at a speech he gave in Kentucky," she said. "It was taped and this young researcher got ahold of it and ended up meeting with [Hager's] wife and finding out a number of sordid details about their life as well. This became a big story, and he was not re-appointed to the committee. Those kinds of things happen — where you have to sort of lock hands with people who care about integrity, of the scientific process, people's personal integrity."

Norsigian also told the group about how a family friend, a priest, was given information that caused him to reconsider some of his previous actions.

"Working with groups and collaborating with groups, building coalitions, is extraordinarily important and it requires a certain amount of training," she said near the end of her public remarks. "Don't take it lightly, I think all of us need this kind of training in working with groups, working with people, developing listening skills and understanding that the people we disagree with — even powerfully disagree with — may have some important things we need to hear.

"I remember a long and extraordinary conversation with a priest, who was very close to my family. He didn't like abortion and he preached against it every year. A woman in his congregation came up to him and told him that she had an abortion and told him why his sermon made her feel horrible and why she thought it was wrong, morally wrong. I won't give you the details, but I want to tell you that he listened and he heard her. He told me that he wasn't giving that sermon ever again. His last words were, 'Don't get me wrong, Judy, abortion is still killing, but now I know abortion can be the right and the moral thing to do.' I don't know who that woman was, but that's the kind of intervention that makes a difference."

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

Analysis Law and Policy

Indiana Court of Appeals Tosses Patel Feticide Conviction, Still Defers to Junk Science

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled patients cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing an abortion under the feticide statute, but left open the possibility other criminal charges could apply.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.

As Rewire previously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”

To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.

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“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.

“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.

This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.

Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.

A Class D felony conviction in Indiana carries with it a sentence of six months to three years.

To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.

That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.

In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.

But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.

Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.

Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.

Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.

The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.

Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?

Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.