When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Norplant in December 1990, this Population Council product was hailed as a boon to women around the world. At last, here was a contraceptive which was effective and easy to use, requiring no fumbling before sex or daily dose of pills. Best of all, it could easily be used to render vast numbers of women in the developing world infertile. The side effects of having five-cylinders of synthetic progesterone implanted into one’s arm were supposed to be minimal and to only occur in a few women. While Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in its fact sheet on Norplant, mentions “irregular menstruation … headaches, and mood changes” as “possible side effects,” another PPFA publication, Norplant and You, suggests that “bleeding usually becomes more regular after nine to 12 months” and “[u]sually there is less blood loss with Norplant than with a normal period.
Norplant Linked to Blindness?
Nothing in the Population Council literature about Norplant describes the horrors Patsy Smith, a mother in Houston, Texas, experienced:
“Three months after having Norplant inserted I started getting horrible headaches … like somebody was just grabbing my head and just squeezing it together as tight as can be squeezed; like someone had put a bomb in there and it was going to go off. I’d noticed that [my vision] being kind of blurry and after the months it got a little bit more blurry and things started looking like they were on top of each other.”1
Although headaches are listed among the possible side effects for Norplant, the severity of the pain and the worrisome blurring of her vision led Patsy to visit noted neuro-opthalmologist Dr. Rosa Tang, who admitted her to a Texas hospital where she came to understand the seriousness of her condition:
I knew something was wrong right away when residents and students and people started coming in and saying can we look at your eyes …. They [took] all kinds of tests and pictures and X-rays and ultra-sounds and odds and ends …. I then asked if I would go blind and Dr. Tang told me she couldn’t make any promises, that she couldn’t make me any guarantees at all.
Patsy has a condition called pseudo-tumor cerebri, where increased fluid pressure in the brain crushes the optic nerve. The damage in Patsy’s case is severe; blindness in one eye and partial blindness in the other. Another such episode could take away her sight entirely. In reviewing Patsy’s medical history Tang came to suspect that Patsy’s condition was related to the use of Norplant. She wrote to all the other eye specialists in Texas to ask if any of their patients on Norplant had exhibited similar symptoms. Over 100 cases were brought to her attention, including 40 women with blurred vision and eight women with conditions identical to Patsy’s. The numbers startled Dr. Tang:
“It was very surprising for me because I had not seen any reports in the literature at this time of such a link between Norplant and pseudo-tumor cerebri and I was surprised of the fact that there were so many patients that seemed to be having the condition related to Norplant. I think that there is enough out there that there is a possibility of a link between the two [and] that a larger-scale study should be done if Norplant is to be continued.”
If the connection discovered by Dr. Tang is accurate, it raises significant questions about Norplant’s testing and approval process. Sybil Shainwald, an attorney in New York City, was present during the sole public hearing about the drug before the Food and Drug Administration:
“This was the fastest approval process that I know of since I have been dealing with the Food and Drug Administration and the purpose was to market this overseas to control population … In the case of Norplant [the process] was ludicrous. It was not the standard approval process. The auditorium was packed and it was like a dog and pony show. There were blond women running around saying ‘I love Norplant, I’m satisfied with Norplant.’ On the other hand, the advisory committee, which was hearing the testimony, took very little cognizance of the fact that there were problems that had been reported throughout the world.”
Comment from Leslie
“….Norplant has damaged so many women in so many countries that it must be withdrawn from the market before it can damage any more. Please consider the Norplant petition with the greatest care. Wyeth Ayerst claims Norplant was tested on 55,000 women around the world, yet an estimated 50,000 are suing the company over the pain their product has caused.”
Norplant was taken off the market in 2002.
Sound familiar? Genocide is what some will say. What is striking is the similarity between Norplnat, HRT, Thalidomide, Gardasil – and what ever comes down the pike next.
Only when women remember what has been done to the mothers and grandmothers will we begin to understand the context of abuse that we live with.
The more that we are educated and take control of our bodies and fertility the less chance that we become victimized by the medical and pharmaceutical industry.
For more reading – on the social politics of birth control: http://www.cluw.org/docpages/newmethods.html