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Podcast Episode 14: Women's Health Law Reform in the United States with Sybil Shainwald

CJ: Hello and welcome to the Feminist Law Podcast. I’m your co-host Courtney Jones.


CT: And I’m your co-host Clara Topiol. We’re both co-founders of the Feminist Law Project and final year law students who are very passionate about feminism and the law. Today on the podcast, we are honoured to have Sybil Shainwald, American attorney who specialised in women health law and remains an activist for women’s health reform especially regarding women’s reproductive rights. Ms Shainwald is a former chair of the National Women’s Health Network, co-founder of Health Action International and Trial Lawyers for Public’s Justice. Could you please introduce yourself?


SS: Good afternoon. I am Sybil Shainwald, it is my honour to do this podcast and to speak about women’s health and my career which I hope has made a difference to women as advocate for their healthcare and rights under the law. I have been a litigator for women for 50 years and hopefully have made contributions which have improved women’s knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry and its multitude of products from birth to death, most of which are not needed and are dangerous to your health.


CJ: Thank you so much for coming on our podcast and introducing yourself and for all the work you’ve done on behalf of women for such a long time. We’re really honoured to have you with us today. what specifically drew you to working in the field of law and more particularly women’s health law covering topics such as DES, women and children, intra-uterine devices and other topics regarding women’s health and reproductive rights?


SS: Let me say that I am honoured to be here, and I appreciate the cooperation and courtesy that you have shown me. I started in women’s health because I wanted my professional life to be about creating a better world and I wanted to be at the forefront of those changes. I grew up at a time in which women were a small minority in the profession. I think there were ten women in my Law School class. I also knew that women suffered a great deal more injuries under Tort Law than understood by the men who were practicing law. I decided I could be a part of the solution by becoming a lawyer who represented only women. You should note that I am also a card-carrier member of the Veteran Feminists of America. Our reproductive organs have been the concern of men for time immemorial. Hormones and surgery have been essential interventions by mainly male scientist doctors. interventions affecting perfectly normal female functions such as birth, the menstrual cycle, menopause, contraception, and surgery are rampant. It is men who determine that we are the weaker sex, who didn’t allow us to vote, who didn’t allow us to own property, who decreed that our place was in the home and that our product should be children. According to the Western medical model, pre-menstrual syndrome is a disease. Menstruation is a disease. Pregnancy is a disease. Childbirth is a disease. And menopause is certainly a disease. From this model, I have reached the conclusion that being a woman is a disease. We are poisoned by prescriptions, we’re hysteroctomised at as 685,000 women are in the US every year at the hands of the medical profession.


CT: Thank you very much for that. From what I’ve read and what you’ve just said as well, it sounds like you started your legal career when it was unpopular and often discouraged for women to do so and you were even discriminated against as a result, including being declined a space at Columbia School of Law for being a woman. How and why did you decide to persevere in the face of so much discrimination?


SS: I decided that being a lawyer was the best way that I could help women and children and I was determined to go to law school. It was approximately 100 years before I attended law school that Myra Bradwell was denied the right to practice law and the decision was upheld by the US Supreme Court in which they state that the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfil the rights of the offices of wife and mother. In 1962, whilst working on a PhD at Columbia University, I knew there was a joint PhD-JD program. I immediately applied to Columbia Law School and although I was a graduate student there at Columbia, I was denied admission because I was told I would take the place of a man who would practice 40 years. I was too old and the wrong gender. You could say that to women in 1962 when 3.6% of the law students were women. I finally received my law degree in 1976. Of the 169 students in my evening class at New York Law School, only seven were women and I cannot say that we were welcome with open arms.


CJ: Thank you, that’s really interesting to hear about your experiences starting your legal career in 1962 and hearing about all the things you’ve experienced. Over the course of your career, you’ve had so many various achievements and amongst many achievements and various involvements within the law, you’re well known for having pioneered DES litigation worldwide. Indeed, you were counsel in the US first DES-daughter case Bichler v Lilly. For our listeners who may be unaware of the DES issue, would you mind please explaining what was happening at the time and maybe tell us more about how you came to be involved in the case and why this topic was so important to you?


SS: I thought that my job as a lawyer was to help women. I thought that men were worth taking care of by male lawyers and there weren’t many women practicing law after I graduated from law school. I was an unpaid associate in a New York law firm and a case came in involving a 17-year-old woman, Joyce Bichler, who had suffered from clear cell adenocarcinoma. All of her reproductive organs and most of her sex organs had to be removed. This was due to her mother’s ingestion of the drug DES, which had been prescribed during her mother’s pregnancy. DES is a synthetic oestrogen which crossed the placenta and injured the fetus. It was a totally useless drug that never saved a single baby and was untested for the purpose it was being used. At that time, nobody had brought a DES claim and nobody thought it could be won. Bichler v Lilly turned out to be the most important and pivotal case of the women’s feminist movement. It brought to life the callous nature of the pharmaceutical industry and is the most prestigious example of the industry’s treatment of women. 6 million American women took this untested and useless drug. Thousands of women developed cancer, were rendered infertile, had miscarriages or as I said before, mainly cancer of the vagina. I sued Eli Lilly but DES was not removed from the market until the 1970s. It remained in your food supplies until the 1990s as it was used to feed chickens. I developed a theory of concerted action meaning that the drug company acted together to put a totally untested drug on the market for use in pregnancy. Later, the New York courts accepted the theory of market shared liability. When I was then able to identify the actual manufacturer of the DES. You cannot sue a drug company unless you can identify a specific company such as Eli Lilly. Of course, identification was not always easy and I subsequently developed a market share theory of recovery where the drug company paid its share of the market.


CT: Thank you for that information and for the overview of the first DES daughter case which you worked on. Towards the start of your career, you also started working on women’s health reform in the 1980s, representing women whose silicone gel breast implants had leaked, amongst other things, causing health problems. Why was the women health reform a conviction of yours and a passion and what were you hoping to achieve at the time?


SS: For the same reasons that peaked my interests in DES litigation, breast implants presented a problem that were causing havoc amongst women with no impact on men. During the years, 1 million women and 1 million farm women had silicone gel breast implants placed inside their bodies, plastic surgery was the most rapidly growing medical specialty. Women were flocking to get this former breast enhancement and that was injuring them, if not killing them. In one year, more than 350,000 American women had breast implant surgery. Only 57,000 of those were for reconstruction after mastectomy. By portraying large breasted happy women and advertising risk-free surgery, plastic surgeons capitalized on many women’s satisfaction and their bodies. Adapted marketing strategies skewed the men’s focus to breast augmentation. One could argue that by encouraging healthy people to undergo surgery, the doctors violated the medical preset: first do no harm. Once again, the men in my office were skeptical of bringing litigation. They were concerned with doctors and the assumption of risk. In other words, you did it to yourself, you asked for it. I was determined to get the product off the market and obtain compensation for my clients who were led to believe that the product was safe for the purpose they were marketing. It was not safe for the purpose for which they were marketing! It was a very unsafe product.


CJ: Of course and thank you so much for that explanation and for making us more aware of the issues with those silicone breast implants and how that has impacted women and how men were unaware of it. Looking back then, how has women’s health and reproductive rights since you started working heavily on this issue in the 70s and in what ways has the world regressed over the years?


SS: I think that the women’s health movement has been particularly powerful in the attempt to demystify medicine, to challenge the power of the physician and the entire medical establishment. It is women who question the darken shield, who question the birth control pill, who question the lack of patient package answers and the medicalization of childbirth, the overprescribing of tranquilisers and the attitude of the medical profession towards them. Few of the social have addressed healthcare practices and institutions so directly. We have now insisted on our right to be educated about our own bodies, to be partners in our healthcare, to confront doctors. We have insisted on accurate and complete information on sexuality, reproduction, childbirth and surgery. We believe that healthcare, not medical care, is a fundamental right for all.


CT: So, as you just mentioned, you think that healthcare is a fundamental right. In light of that, where do you think that women’s health and reproductive rights will be headed in the next few years or decades?

SS: The recent Dobbs decision in the US is a serious regression for women. For 50 years, in this country, we have had reproductive freedom. That was taken away in a narrow vote, the first time that a recognised constitutional right has been effectively repealed. Roe v Wade was overturned after we had freedom to have abortions, we had accepted that as our right for 50 years. It was taken away by a very narrow vote by the Supreme Court of the US. Hopefully, we are all working to get back soon. I must point out also that many States have reacted in a positive manner. The voters of Kansas for example rejected a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in that State after its Supreme Court found that the State’s Constitution contains this. That had an impact on the mid-term elections as women became more involved. I am hopeful that the trend will continue and State Supreme Courts, other than Kansas, will follow suit. I think women are outraged by the decision in Dobbs. It is our right to do what we want with our bodies.


CJ: Thank you so much for that. Absolutely, it is a fundamental right to have bodily autonomy and to make decisions regarding what one does with one’s own body. I completely agree, I have seen so many articles talking about how women are angered over the Dobbs decision to repeal Roe v Wade. On a more positive note, looking back over your career and all that you’ve achieved, because you’ve done so much, what accomplishments would you say you are most proud of?


SS: There are actually several. I must say that Bichler v Eli Lilly is one of course. In New York, we had an archaic rule: the status of limitations would begin to run when you first suggested a drug, not when you had injury. This caused a great deal of difficulty for many of my clients who did not know that their mothers even take DES. The revival and discovery statute which I successfully lobbied for and then legislated to change the law. Now, the law is three years from discovery of a woman’s injury, which makes a lot more sense.


CT: Thank you for sharing that. Looking to the future, if you had one message for women and girls across the world, in relation to their rights and advocating for them, what would it be?


SS: Be aware, be involved, protect your rights and those of other women worldwide. Do not take no for an answer. Go to law school, I believe that’s the most productive way to effect change. Make new laws to protect women’s rights.


CJ: Thank you, that is incredible advice and definitely the advice that you have followed yourself over the years of your career and we’re just honoured to have had you here and learn from your immense expertise on women’s rights and protecting women’s rights. With that being said, if our listeners wanted to learn more about your work for women’s health law and the law reform, where can they do that?

SS: Thank you for the compliment and I am welcome for any questions that women would like to mail to me or email me, of course. They are welcome to visit my website sybilshainwald.com and I hope they will find it useful. They can also write to me at sybilshainwald@gmail.com. I welcome any questions or comments that your listeners have.


CT: Thank you again so much for joining us, it was a real pleasure.


SS: Thank you so much for having me, it was my pleasure I assure you because it is wonderful to speak to other women and you have given me a great opportunity.


CT: In today’s feminist news roundup, gender equality group Chwarae Teg find that women in Wales remain decades from achieving equality. Allegedly, the gender pay gap in Wales remains at 11.3%. there are concerns the wait could be even longer for women from ethnic minorities and from low socio-economic backgrounds.


CJ: Also, a new trend on TikTok called Watch this Creep is prompting women to expose gym harassment. Indeed, a study from 2021 found that 76% of women feel uncomfortable exercising in public due to harassment.


CT: Finally, Talibans in Afghanistan have most recently banned contraception coining it as a Western conspiracy. This is the latest attack on women’s rights since coming to power in 2021.


CJ: If you have any suggestions for this podcast, let us know directly via email at contact@feministlaw.org.


CT: Please also visit our website at feministlaw.org and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn to keep up to date with our latest articles, podcasts, newsletters and exciting news.


CJ: The music from this podcast was sourced from Pixabay.com.


CT: Thanks for listening!


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Transcribed by: Clara Topiol

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