The First FDA Protest: the National Women’s Health Network’s inaugural action

The first public action of the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) was a protest at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on December 16, 1975. The NWHN organized a memorial service on behalf of women who died because no one would give them information about the risks of the estrogen-containing drugs they were taking. Our co-founders had pressed the Federal government for package inserts with information about prescription drugs and the warning signs of complications ever since the 1970 Senate Pill Hearings, but the response had been inadequate.

We rallied dozens of activists to gather on the steps of the FDA headquarters to hear from bereaved parents and widowers about the women they had lost, and how their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented. We chose this cold winter day for the NWHN’s first action because we knew that these women’s stories would be backed up by new scientific studies about cancers caused by menopause estrogen therapy being published in the New England Journal of Medicine that very day. The protest was included in the 1976 ABC special “Women’s Health: A Question of Survival”, produced by Marlene Sanders.

The FDA responded to our action, and in 1978, the first comprehensive patient package insert was distributed to women using oral contraceptives and other estrogen-containing drugs. The rate of complications from these drugs quickly dropped once women had this information, and researchers also responded by developing lower-dose, safer oral contraceptives. Today, the risk of dying as a result of a complication caused by oral contraceptives is less than 1 in 100,000.

Years later, when AIDS activists thought that the FDA was taking too long to approve drugs for HIV/AIDS, they too staged protests at the FDA — demonstrating that the strategies created by the women’s health movement could be effectively used by other groups to catalyze change.  Today, the NWHN and other consumer health advocates help the FDA find consumer and patient representatives to serve on the agency’s advisory panels, and the FDA frequently requires companies to provide comprehensive patient package inserts for new drugs.