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Pioneering women’s health: Profiles in courage

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Spring


Celebrating the efforts of some doctors who helped bring women’s health issues into the mainstream.

For decades, despite mounting challenges, abortion and contraception have been legally available in the United States. But it was not that long ago that women lacked meaningful access to family planning. That situation changed in part thanks to two Yale faculty women: Gertrude Van Wagenen, PhD, who co-developed post-coital contraception—the so-called morning-after birth control pill—and Virginia Stuermer, MD, who defied legal barriers to provide patients with contraception and abortion services.

Born in 1893, Van Wagenen spent decades in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, studying reproductive endocrinology with a colony of macaques.

Professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology and departmental historian Ernest Kohorn, MBBCh, MChir, vividly recalls those years: “When I first came to Yale in ’65, there were monkeys walking around with bottles in the department, where the chair’s office is now,” he says. (The colony was later moved to the hospital.)

Beginning in the 1930s, Van Wagenen, whom Kohorn describes as “delightful, very pleasant, very polite”—bred generations of the animals. She and Yale gynecologic surgeon John McLean Morris, MD, reported in 1966 that diethylstilbestrol (DES) can, in sufficient doses, prevent embryo implantation in both macaques and humans. DES was soon being used as the first morning-after pill. (It had also long been prescribed for other indications to pregnant women wishing to keep their pregnancies but was later linked to higher cancer risk in daughters of DES patients.) Improved versions were later developed, but Van Wagenen and Morris have been credited with paving the way. She died in 1978 at the age of 84.

Virginia Stuermer, 94, associate clinical professor emerita of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, is a Nebraska native. The daughter of a prairie nurse who visited patients by horseback, she made up her mind to become a doctor at age 4 and trained in her home state as well as New Jersey and Iowa before joining Yale’s Ob/Gyn department in 1954.

At that time, Connecticut remained in the grip of the 1879-vintage Comstock law, which forbade not only the use of contraception but also even its discussion with patients by providers in public clinics. That surprised Stuermer, as such laws had been overturned in many other states.

“Everybody in the Midwest believed in contraception,” Stuermer recalls. “My training says [that] when a patient comes in for a postpartum examination, you say, ‘What do you want to use for contraception?’ It was just the routine thing.” She continued to practice as she’d been taught.

Despite such obstacles as no break room with beds for women physicians attending childbirths, Stuermer gained a sterling reputation at Yale, according to Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences who trained with Stuermer in the late 1970s.

“She was just an incredibly solid surgeon. There was—pardon my language—no crapping around in Ginny’s OR,” Minkin recalls. “We wanted to grow up and be like Ginny.”

On November 1, 1961, then-department chair Charles Lee Buxton, MD, and Connecticut Planned Parenthood League executive director Estelle Griswold opened a birth control clinic in open defiance of the Comstock law. Ten days later, both were arrested and jailed. Stuermer was running the clinic that day.

“I walked into the clinic to do the afternoon stint, and they say to me, ‘Dr. Stuermer, the police are here. What shall we do?,’ ” she recalls. “I say, ‘Well, we’ll see the patient.’ Which we did.”

Stuermer herself avoided arrest—“I was an underling,” she explains.

Underling or not, she soon became medical director of Planned Parenthood for Connecticut. The Comstock law was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut ruling.

But abortion remained illegal, as it had been in Connecticut since 1821. Years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, Stuermer joined a committee of New Haven providers and clergy that had decided to set up an outpatient abortion clinic. The group, she recalls, “talked and talked and talked. And this went on for, I think, close to a year. I finally says, ‘It’s time to put up or shut up.’ ”

Stuermer offered to allow the clinic to run out of her own private offices at 2 Church Street South. First a New York City visiting physician then later, she herself did the procedures. It was, she says, the city’s first freestanding abortion clinic, and quite illegal.

“I suppose they could have thrown us in jail,” Stuermer reflects. “They would have arrested us and arraigned us and we probably would have ended up with a fine.” She doesn’t think they would have served jail time, “but maybe that’s too optimistic on my part.”

Regardless, she practiced unchallenged, and even after other area clinics opened when abortion was legalized, Stuermer continued to provide the service until she retired at age 79.

“Ginny’s whole career has been very much devoted to making sure that women had access to contraception and safe abortion,” Minkin says. “Our department has always been staunch on the subject of reproductive rights, and Ginny set the tone for it.”

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