Women Fighting for Everyone’s Health

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout the history of medicine, the health of women and children hasn’t always been prioritized. Safeguards might not have been in place to ensure drugs were safe during pregnancy, the right to abortion care has been under attack by both terrorists and lawmakers, and people haven’t had the tools they needed to prevent pregnancy. But throughout that same history, women have confronted these issues head on, creating a better world for everyone and keeping important conversations alive.

Let’s meet some of these incredible historical figures now!

Frances Oldham Kelsey

President Kennedy honors Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey with the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962.

In 1960, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was evaluating drug applications for the FDA. When she received an application for a sleeping pill called Kevadon, she was unsettled by scant information on the drug’s safety and demanded additional data, triggering a game of tug-of-war between the pharmaceutical company and the FDA that persisted for more than a year.

In November 1961, Dr. Kelsey was vindicated. Kevadon — aka thalidomide — was discovered to cause severe birth defects. According to the New York Times, children “were born without arms or legs, some with no limbs or with withered appendages protruding directly from the trunk. Some had no external ears or deformities of the eyes, the esophagus or intestinal tracts.” One estimate holds that 20,000 babies were born with deformities, while 80,000 died during pregnancy or shortly after birth. But, thanks to Dr. Kelsey, thalidomide was never approved in the United States.

Frances Kelsey’s career might have been made possible by a misunderstanding. Her graduate advisor at the University of Chicago wasn’t a big booster of women in science, but he hired her after reading her name as Francis and assuming she was a man. Dr. Kelsey always wondered, “if my name had been Elizabeth or Mary Jane, whether I would have gotten that first big step up.” At the time, though, she wondered if she should even accept the offer to join the University of Chicago as a grad student.

“When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child,” Dr. Kelsey told the New York Times in 2010. Fortunately for an untold number of wives and children — and everyone else — she decided to claim her rightful place at the university, leaving behind an incredible legacy.

Sherri Finkbine

The Finkbines traveling back to Phoenix, en route from London.

Sherri Finkbine was known to thousands of children as Miss Sherri on the local edition of the children’s show Romper Room. But Finkbine entered the spotlight for another reason in 1962, when she learned during her fifth pregnancy that she was at risk of having a child with severe birth defects. Finkbine was using sleeping pills that her husband had brought back from Europe, and the pills, she found out, contained thalidomide. Wishing to warn others about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic.

Though she had been promised anonymity, her identity was exposed and her story created a media firestorm. Continue reading

Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a Champion of Teen Sexual and Reproductive Health

EldersIn honor of Black History Month, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona would like to recognize an outstanding and inspiring black woman who championed adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights: Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Dr. Elders served as surgeon general to the United States under President Bill Clinton, and famously said, “I want every child born in America to be a planned and wanted child.”

She started her life in rural Arkansas, picking cotton to help support her family, and in 1978, she became Arkansas’ first board-certified pediatric endocrinologist. Dr. Elders’ work in endocrinology is what first piqued her interest in adolescent sexual health — some of her young patients, such as young girls with diabetes, would face serious health risks if they were to become pregnant.


Dr. Joycelyn Elders is an inspiring, passionate, and outspoken advocate for sexual and reproductive health and justice


In 1987, Dr. Elders became the director of the Arkansas health department. In this role, Dr. Elders championed an initiative that required sex education in the K-12 curriculum. She also aggressively campaigned to make birth control more readily available, particularly for teens, widened the state’s HIV testing and counseling programs, and advocated for greater access to abortion.

Then, in 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first African-American and only the second female surgeon general. In an interview, Dr. Elders stated that her No. 1 priority for her tenure as surgeon general was to “to do something about unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.” Continue reading

Meet Our Candidates: Dr. Richard Carmona for U.S. Senator

The Arizona general election will be held on November 6, 2012, with early voting starting on October 11. After the many recent legislative challenges to reproductive health care access, both nationally and statewide, the importance of voting in November can’t be overstated. To help voters, Planned Parenthood Action Fund has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive health and freedom. Along with those endorsements, we are spotlighting our endorsed candidates in a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” To vote in the general election, you must register to vote by October 9 — and can even register online. Make your voice heard in 2012!

When announcing Dr. Richard Carmona’s endorsement by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, President Cecile Richards said that “Arizona women need a champion who has long fought to protect and promote women’s health representing them in Washington” — and as a former U.S. surgeon general, Carmona is uniquely positioned to advocate for scientifically driven, rather than agenda-driven, policies on health and medicine.


“Health care should not be politicized.”


Carmona already has experience fighting for evidence-based health policy in an increasingly polarized political climate. After leaving his position as surgeon general, Carmona testified before Congress that the George W. Bush administration continually hampered his attempts to present scientifically sound public health policy when it conflicted with their political agenda. As Carmona said in his testimony, the Bush administration silenced him on many issues, including emergency contraception and comprehensive sex education — and the public was denied access to the latest unbiased evidence on important public health issues.

Carmona is running against Republican challenger Jeff Flake to succeed Jon Kyl as U.S. senator from Arizona. Flake’s congressional voting record is problematic, and includes support for an amendment to the Affordable Care Act to prohibit abortion coverage, support for defunding Planned Parenthood, and a vote against expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

As a U.S. senator, Carmona can bring his lifetime of experience as a physician and public-health expert to the legislature. When it comes to our medical care, no matter our political affiliations, we all need access to the best scientific evidence, and we need someone who will be a champion for our health in the U.S. Senate.

Dr. Carmona generously took time for an interview with us via telephone on October 3, 2012.


Many of us, including myself, are becoming increasingly concerned about the hostility toward science exhibited by some of our current lawmakers. What can you do to inject reason and scientific evidence into an increasingly politicized discourse about public health?

Well, first and foremost, if you remember my tenure as surgeon general, I had to do that. There was a lot of ideological, nonscientific-driven sentiment, and when necessary I stood up and I addressed the issues appropriately. It wasn’t a perfect world, especially when you have many of those ideologues thinking differently, but nevertheless, I will do the same thing as a senator.

And I think I enter the Senate with, if you will, the imprimatur of being a surgeon general and a trauma surgeon and a registered nurse and a paramedic. I bring all those years of cumulative science to the table as I discuss things with my colleagues. And although they may be ideologically driven, and I will certainly acknowledge their personal beliefs, that’s not science and it’s not fact. Continue reading