DAME talks to one of our nation’s fiercest advocates on the 14th anniversary of the iconic biopic that made her famous. And at 53, she’s still fighting on the front lines.
Erin Brockovich was a single mom and a struggling law clerk when she helped secure one of the largest settlements in lawsuit history against Pacific Gas & Electric for its hand in polluting the town of Hinkley, California. She collected interviews, scientific evidence, and the whistle-blowing testimonies necessary to win this legendary class-action lawsuit before there was an Internet. Today, one can’t open her email or mailbox without a handful of alerts for lawsuits pending against her car company, insurance agent, or dry cleaner. In just the past year, Comerica, Honda, and AT&T have paid out multi-million-dollar settlements. Many of these cases start with email petitions. Brockovich got it done by knocking on doors.
This month marks the 14th anniversary of the now-iconic biopic that introduced the world to her consumer advocacy—and made her a household name, an Oprah BFF, and one of the most vocal advocates for environmental regulation.
Lest you think she has disappeared, Brockovich has been incredibly busy. Over the past decade, she has been devoting her efforts to helping women. Now 53, she is working on a handful of consumer-health cases related to women’s reproductive and pharmaceutical care. She was one of the instrumental figures to bring to light the complications associated with the time-release birth control Yaz. She’s assisting women who have suffered side effects from the Mirena IUD in finding legal counsel. She’s helped mobilize a small group of women who have endured complications associated with the birth control device, Essure, build a coalition of more than 6,000, which has now gained the attention of congressional candidates. And her work on promoting the reported adverse effects of Depo-Provera led to the FDA issuing a “black box warning” on the product’s packaging that warns women of potential bone loss that may be irreversible. Brockovich talks with DAME about her new role as an advocate for women’s health.
I started paying really close attention when the Gardasil shots happened (the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006). I have daughters—and a granddaughter now. It really hit home. I talked to mothers and families whose daughters had the shot and died. I tried to get involved from a legal perspective, but it was hard because the drug falls under the Vaccine Injury Act (which has strict guidelines for financial claims related to immunizations). I just felt I couldn’t get them the recourse that they needed. But I could help with awareness. I created a website where women could share their stories and I talked about it with anyone who would listen. It was at that moment that everything came together. I started waking up to these issues that have always been around me. My career has been focused on environmental work, but I’d always hear stories of women suffering from a certain medical device or treatment. I thought somewhere, someone was protecting them. I never thought I would see their voices being dismissed.
These mothers concerned about Gardasil were repeatedly shut down by doctors. When Yaz started to make people sick, the symptoms were written off. Recently, with these women suffering from hemorrhaging, punctured organs, and getting hysterectomies before 40 because of the Essure device, they kept running into walls. No one would believe that their symptoms were linked to this device. Many of them told me their doctors said the same thing, “Oh, that’s impossible.” Well, it is possible. It’s happening.
Oh, that’s a huge part of it. When women speak out, we get the usual set of excuses: “It’s in your head.” “Are you on your period?” “It’s just a hot flash.” “Is it a bad hair day?” Women are really keen about questioning these things. There’s this knowledge that when women get together, they’re a pretty tough force to push back. The best way to push back on them would be to create a question in their minds—“Am I crazy?”—so that’s where this dismissal and this sexism comes from.
We’re missing the human element. CEOs and judges are making decisions that affect women’s bodies and they have no idea how our bodies even work. Where do these product developers and decision-makers—mostly men—get to touch, feel, hear, and share the experience with the person who has been damaged by this product? I don’t mean to pit male against female, because it’s not that. I just think it’s a lack of understanding. I think that all of us at some level want to be solution-driven. But we can get short-sighted. And in that short-sightedness, we sacrifice certain things. We need more long-term studies. We need to make sure we’re not putting something out there too soon and treating women like guinea pigs. We need to bring women in to the development meetings, include them in clinical trials, and find female experts to analyze these things. When you own the body you’re developing a product for, your awareness is a little keener.
Many of these drugs and products are protected by various laws that make it hard or impossible to sue. And the answer isn’t always a lawsuit. It just isn’t. The real power is for these women to have a place to share their stories—and hear those of others. I’ve created websites for these issues. Women can go there for the latest information and build a community. The desperation I’ve heard from so many women is heartbreaking. They have nowhere else to go. And when they do tell their story, when they do see that they are not the only one, it’s such a relief. The first thing they all think is, “Thank God I’m not crazy.” If I can help with nothing else, I want women to learn that it’s okay to speak up. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to tell your doctor no. That is my most important work.
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