NEW YORK — Certainly it has the makings of a good scandal: rampant corporate avarice, a sluggish federal regulatory agency, demonic central characters who falsified or misrepresented key data and legions of victims who span the globe--victims who are either dead, brutally scarred or permanently unable to bear children. In the person of U.S. District Judge Miles Lord of Minnesota, the tragic tale of the Dalkon Shield even has a home-grown hero, filled with a suitable complement of fire, brimstone and vociferous moral indignation.
But the story is definitely not new. The Dalkon Shield has not been marketed in this country for more than 10 years. And for all its elements of corporate shenanigans, it is as much as anything a women's health story.
In the world of publishing, these two qualities are often tantamount to a giant kiss of death.
True, the horrifying details continue to emerge, and the recent announcement by Dalkon Shield manufacturer A.H. Robins that this pharmaceutical giant intended to file for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code blasted the story back into headlines that began in 1974 when Robins withdrew from the market a contraceptive device that had been inserted in more than 3 million women. Though Robins continues to maintain that "used properly," the Dalkon Shield is no more hazardous than any other intrauterine device, the crab-shaped object has been at the center of a storm encompassing medicine, law, corporate practices and women who chose this IUD in an attempt to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Newspaper profiles and last season's widely viewed "60 Minutes" segment on Judge Lord brought renewed attention to the case of the Dalkon Shield. Settlements by Robins of a reported $343 million on 8,750 Dalkon Shield cases suggested it was a matter the courts were taking very, very seriously indeed.
Still, the appearance within two months this fall of three books dealing with the Dalkon Shield was seen as a definite head-turner, even by some of those closest to the three quite different individual projects.
"I don't remember anything like this, especially where the people involved have not, with the exception of Judge Lord, been public figures," said Alexia Dorszynski, editor at Macmillan of "Night mare: Women and the Dalkon Shield" by wife-and-husband team Susan Perry and Jim Dawson of Minneapolis.
Added Dorszynski of the trio of books appearing this same literary season, "I think that three's a lot, that's for sure."
But as Belle Blanchard Newton of Doubleday, publisher of "Lord's Justice," by Sheldon Englemayer and Robert Wagman, pointed out, "The dimensions of the issue are such that it leads to this kind of inquiry. I don't think it's unusual when you have an issue of these proportions for people, and especially writers, to take this kind of interest in it."
Among the five writers of these three books, that interest was manifested in distinctly different approaches to essentially the same subject. In "At Any Cost: Corporate Greed, Women and the Dalkon Shield" (due out in November from Pantheon) veteran Washington Post investigative reporter Morton Mintz said he chose to concentrate on "the corporation and corporate conduct." For Perry and Dawson, said Perry, "all along, our entire concern throughout the book was the women and how they had been misused." And as far back as six years ago, Sheldon Englemayer said, he and his partner Wagman came across the outspoken Judge Lord and decided that "one day, we would do a book on Miles Lord." With his now legendary courtroom denunciation of Robins in January, 1984, said Englemayer, "Lord put the spotlight on a story that should have been spotlighted going back to 1974."
'The Birth Control Savior'
Or earlier, in the view of Susan Perry. A former Time-Life writer now free-lancing and married to an investigative reporter for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Perry traces the Dalkon Shield saga back to the early '70s, "when there was the big birth control pill scare, and the IUD was going to be the birth control savior." Data on these new intrauterine devices was scarce, and, as has subsequently been demonstrated through the mountain of Dalkon Shield depositions, often incomplete.
Perry still bristles that young women who chose any IUD, much less the Dalkon Shield, as birth control, have since been bombarded with the "you should have known better" line of argument. "It really angers me," she said. "They were young, many of them--19, 20, 21. I think the better question is why didn't their doctors know better?"
In writing the book, said Perry, "I wanted them to see that it wasn't their fault. I wanted to reach those women who were wearing the Dalkon Shield, many of whom were not aware of what was behind all their pain and suffering. Many of them have never understood completely how they were wronged."
Agreed Dawson, "If you had had men dying and coming up sterile, it would have been national news in 1974."