“A Lifetime of Championing Women’s Reproductive Rights.”

Interviewed by Penny Stoil, VFA Board, March 2019. Videographer: Ron Myrvik

PS:  Sybil Shainwald — you’ve been quoted as saying that you were born a feminist. Today at the age of 90, with your life and work dedicated to women’s health reform and social justice, you’re a testament to that.

You taught public school, married the love of your life, Sidney Shainwald, raised four children and then earned a Master’s in history at Columbia University. Your family marched for civil rights and women’s rights, and you were an early member of NOW.

You won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to found the Consumer Studies Center for Consumers Union at the age of 40. But, at the same time, you made a life-altering decision. You enrolled at New York Law School as a night student — and voila, at the improbable age of 48, you earned your law degree and went on to help change the world for women.

Why did you decide to be an attorney and how hard was it to get into law school?

SS:  I decided to become a lawyer a long time before I went to New York Law School. There was a joint program at Columbia. I was getting my PhD in history and I went over to the law school because they did have a joint program with graduate school. And, the Dean of the law school said –“You will take the place of a man who will practice for 40 years”. Luckily, I’ve been practicing for more than 40 years.

I found out then that my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher was going to law school at night and I called her, and I asked – “How do you go to law school at night?”

She said – “Oh tomorrow’s the last day for taking the LSAT’s.” So, I left a note to my husband saying,  “gone to Princeton, I’ll be back when I’m back”.  I applied to one law school because I thought “why waste your money on an application”.  I went to New York Law School at night while I had this wonderful grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

PS:  How hard was it to get into law school?

SS:  I did not get into Columbia.  But I knew I wanted to be a lawyer because I could make the most change through the practice of law — the kind of practice that I wanted. 

PS:  What exactly was the focus of your law practice from the start?

SS:  I started in a firm, and I was the only woman. And, I was not paid – just like Sandra Day O’Connor. She couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t get a job.  And, we both decided to simply take space. I didn’t exactly get to where she was, but I did the best I could.

I asked if I could take space at a law firm that had only hired men. They said “yes, we don’t usually do that, but we’ll do it for you.”  And, of course, they called me sweetheart.

SS:  I don’t think it’s changed that much. It was women who were experimented on by the pharmaceutical industry. It was women who used Depo Provera and Norplant. I mean these are untested products. DES was totally ineffective, totally useless, and had not been tested. And the reason given by the Food and Drug Administration was that it was too hard to test these drugs. Later, for example, they tested male mice. There was a bias in gender testing. I asked them why they were doing that? They said that female mice have hormonal systems and that it was too expensive for the pharmaceutical companies to test on female mice.  So, DES was never tested. Yet, DES was given to six million American women and resulted in terrible injuries.

PS:  And I understand it was a carcinogen as well.

SS:  It was a carcinogen and it was causing birth defects.

PS:   You won that case, and that was a landmark case — the first, I understand, against Eli Lilly.

SS:  It was Joyce Bichler against Eli Lilly, and it was the first DES case. I do not think the men in the office wanted to take it to trial because they thought it was a loser. Anyway, we had a very smart judge in the Bronx, Judge Freeman and the point was to prove the main problem with that case.  That case is in the law books today as the first mass tort case tried on a non-identification theory.  I could not prove that it was Lilly’s product.  For example, if you had an accident with your car, you have to say whether it’s a Ford or a GM or whatever. But in this case, there was no way to prove that this was Lilly’s pill. I had one sentence in the complaint and the judge said — “we will use the plaintiff’s complaint and take the theory of conservative action.” I proved that the drug industry acted together to put a defective product on the market.

PS:  Then there was your suit against A. H. Robins. That’s the one about the Dalkon Shield, which was I believe an intrauterine device to prevent pregnancy. How did that go?

SS:   I call it the war on the womb. The Dalkon Shield was tested on baboons. Baboons are the closest to humans.  I think seven or eight out of the nine baboons died, but that did not stop A.H. Robins. The Dalkon Shield was used all over the world.  Finally, the FDA ordered the Shield to be removed from the bodies of women in the United States — but not worldwide.  It was a defective device to begin with. One of the advertisements said that it was for the forgetful woman. If you forgot to take your birth control pill and you had the Dalkon Shield in – you were fine.

Contraceptive development has always meant drugs  and devices for women. We pay with our tax dollars for the research and with our lives for the results.  We often don’t know the amount of research nor the results. We assume that the data on major health products are indeed safe and effective, and that is often not true. Dr. J. Robert Wilson stated at the First International Conference on Intrauterine Contraception in 1962 – “If we look at this from an over-all long-range view — these are things that I never said out loud before and I don’t know how it is going to sound – perhaps the individual patient is expendable in the general scheme of things, particularly if the infection she acquires is sterilizing and not lethal.”  I think they had nine baboons that they studied, and eight baboons died — but that didn’t give the company any pause.

PS:  You had case against Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, the maker of Norplant.  What is Norplant?

SS:   Norplant was a long-acting contraceptive. 

PS:  It was an implant was it not?

SS:  There were five or six hormonal sticks. You had to have surgery to put them in, and surgery to take them out.  I think that they were used for population control and they were certainly not safe, and yet they were marketed. It was the same – appropriate research was not done and actually Norplant was used mostly in the third world. I testified against the use of all of these products at The Food and Drug Administration as a consumer representative. Of course, the corporations had the power to get all of these ineffective, useless, unsafe products passed by the Food and Drug Administration. All of these dangerous and defective devices were aimed at women.

PS:  You educated women about their own health but especially about Depo Provera, a drug manufactured by Upjohn Corporation. What was Depo Provera? 

SS:  Depo Provera was another contraceptive made by Upjohn, untested and it was I think three-month contraceptive.

PS:  Was this given by injection?

SS:  Yes, injection.   Going back to Norplant, women do not space their babies five years apart, generally speaking, and that was supposed to be a five-year contraceptive. But these were used on women.  The guinea pigs were the women in Puerto Rico and in Bangladesh and in developing countries.

PS:   Depo Provera I understand was actually banned but they continued marketing it for 10 years, I heard in 80 foreign countries.

SS:  That’s right.

PS:  And that was fairly typical of what they would do with a banned drug.

SS:  Unfortunately, yes.  I would say that in most third world countries, all third world countries really, the equivalent of what Food and Drug Administration is here, was much weaker there. There were poor safety laws, there was no information for women, and they were just told that this was an effective contraceptive.

PS:  You were proud of your work as chair of the Women’s Health Network. Tell us about their mission and their various conferences in this country, in Atlanta, Appalachia and Boston.  Could you talk a little bit about those?

SS:   I was the Chair for six years and it was the only organization devoted to women and health. The conference in Appalachia was called Rural Pathways. These women came from all around the country, and hopefully left the conference with more information about their health — what products were out there, what products they should not use and what they could. They could always contact the National Women’s Health Network for further information, which they did.

PS:  In Boston, you did a Speak-Out on abortion.

SS:  Yes, that was the first speak out I think on abortion. It was the early 80s.

PS:  And in Atlanta there was a Black Women’s Health Conference.

SS:  The Black Women’s Health Project grew out of the National Women’s Health Network. Byllye Avery came to me and she said she would like to have a separate organization. I thought that was fine because I think women need to identify with other women who have the same problems. We talked about it and decided to have this conference in Atlanta at Spelman College actually. I was the only white woman there, and it was very, very good. That grew into the Black Women’s Health Organization.

PS:  And you did some traveling around the world in order to educate women. You were in Africa, were you’re not?

SS:  I was in Kenya at the Conference on Women, and I gave four workshops there. And one of them was on the Dalkon Shield.  Sister Chichi came up to me and she said she ran a women’s health clinic in Ethiopia. She said to me – I’d like you to represent me in the United States. And I said “Do you have your Dalkon Shield?    And she said yes. I said “I cannot represent you unless you have your Dalkon Shield removed. You are the head of a clinic. If you write me a letter and tell me that you have had it removed, and you have had every woman in your clinic had remove theirs, then I will represent you”.

PS:  And did she?

SS:   She did, and she sent me two Ivory bracelets.

SS:  I also represented the women of Bangladesh.

PS:  Can you talk about that?

SS:  I represented the women of Bangladesh in the Dalkon Shield litigation. A man called me and asked if I would represent the women of his country against A.H. Robins. And I said sure.

So, I filed these cases in Richmond, VA, and the clerk of the court called me and said “Mrs. Shainwald, we can’t read the addresses, so we won’t be able to give these women any money.’  I called Fahad, who was my contact in Bangladesh, and I said “Can you come over to the United States next week? We have to go to Richmond to put addresses on the papers I had filed – because the papers that I received from them said addresses were three steps to the left of the concrete block” . He came, we went to Richmond, we straightened out everything, and the women in Bangladesh received their money.  I’m happy to say that my picture hangs in Dhaka.

PS:  I heard it hangs all over Bangladesh. That’s what I’ve been told.

SS:  That’s even better.

PS:  Of the thousands – yes thousands — of cases you’ve won which were your most important successes? 

SS:  The most important case I had was Bichler v. Lilly because it was the first DES case — and it was really important.  Six million women in this country were given an unsafe, untested drug.  I still, at my age and stage, am representing clients who were whose mothers took the drug and whose daughters were injured as a result.

PS:  From all of that work you’ve done what is giving you the greatest personal satisfaction?

SS:   I think of bringing justice. I hope that I have brought some justice and compensation to these women around the world.  And also, that I have helped to change the law.

PS:   And where do you feel you made the most lasting difference?

SS:  I think of changing the law in New York State.  For example, the law was that until you reach a majority 21 years old you could not bring a case. I decided that I should change the law, and make it into a discovery statute. It took about five years to do that I would say. Gov. Mario Cuomo signed the law, gave my client the pen and I ran around the corner and filed the first DES case in New York.  Also, for one year it revived cases that had been dismissed on the basis of the earlier statute. All those women who had been turned out of court could now sue and receive some compensation for their devastating injuries.

PS:  In the matter of choice, what do you fear most about the future of abortion?

SS:  I must say that I don’t think that a lot of people know that the right to an abortion, the right to choose, did not start with Roe v. Wade. At the beginning of this country, women were free to get abortions. It wasn’t until doctors in the mid 19th century started to practice and perform abortions, that it was medicalized. Before that there were  midwives, and abortions were easy to access and were part of our culture. Now we have more and more restrictive laws. We have in some states – heartbeat laws – that say you can’t have an abortion after the baby’s heartbeat can be heard.  And that’s very early. We have seven states that have laws that ban abortion from conception. It’s more and more restrictive. I received something today – The Federal Appeals Court just held that abortion providers have no constitutional protections.

Do I fear for abortion? Yes, I do fear for it because the Justices have changed on the Supreme Court. Brett Kavanaugh’s record is not good on the issue, regardless of how he testified before Congress.  If President Trump can appoint any more Justices, I do fear that Roe v. Wade may be overturned. 

PS:   As a dedicated chair of the Women’s Health Network, member of NOW, and the Veteran Feminists of America, what would you say today to encourage young feminists?

SS:  I would say go to Law School.

PS:  Will they let them in?

SS: They let them in now. When I went to law school three-point six percent of my class were women.  It was much more difficult then for women to go to law school and to become lawyers — and certainly to go into practice.

PS:   And to conclude – when you applied to law school at the age of 40, you were told that you were too old for a full practicing life. Today nearly 50 years later, still going strong – you have proved them wrong. Congratulations and thank you to a fabulous feminist.

SS:  Thank you. That’s a great compliment.

By Sybil Shainwald

A fierce advocate for women; a tireless champion of women's health outcomes; a legal legacy fighting for reproductive freedom.