From The Blog

Uncovering the IUD’s Downfall, One Court Record at a Time

By: Kiley Roache The IUD is the most effective form of birth control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent years,...

By: Kiley Roache

The IUD is the most effective form of birth control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent years, it has been making a comeback in the United States. But in other countries, it hasn’t needed a comeback; it has long been popular outside the US.

To understand the recent comeback of the IUD, I turned my attention first to the fall of this medical device. This was in large part thanks to the Dalkon Shield lawsuits, a major reason the contraceptive fell off the map in the 80s.

Over 200,000 lawsuits were filed over the device, which killed at least 18 women in
America alone. In my initial research, I learned that archives of the maker of the Dalkon Shield, the A.H. Robins company – which was headquartered in Virginia – are held by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Another large archive is at the University of Virginia; called the Dalkon Shield Claimants Trust Collection, it contains 170,000 items relevant to the development of the product, the litigation and the bankruptcy of A.H. Robins.  Both will be of use when pursuing this project more fully. But lacking the funds to get to Virginia, I started closer to home.

Knowing A.H. Robins had been sued in many places, I searched the company name in the New York County Supreme Court database. I found two cases, with the names of the plaintiffs and respondents and case numbers. Since the cases were too old to be online, there was no other information but the names, save for a note that they could be viewed at the courthouse. So I planned a trip.

I walked up the stairs of the courthouse building and through the grand columns. After passing through security, I took an elevator down to the clerk’s office, as the website instructed. A kind receptionist ran the index number – but there was no result. She sent me down the hall to the records room to check there. No luck there either, and I was sent down the street to another building, which was much less grand.

I took a rickety elevator up to the seventh floor. The doors opened to reveal floor to ceiling shelves stacked with thousands of files. A clerk there took my notebook, disappeared behind the stacks, and reemerged a few minutes later with two files– one thin and one bulging.  

I flipped opened both of the files excitedly. Both lawsuits alleged negligence by A.H. Robins, among other reasons for damages. But the cases were about diet pills, not the Dalkon Shield. Nevertheless, I took notes and scanned pages. The corporate culture of A.H. Robins may be an important key to this story, so the actions that resulted in a different lawsuit may be helpful in understanding the case. Perhaps the most important information I gleaned was the name and contact information for the lawyer who represented A.H. Robins in these cases, which stretched past the bankruptcy of the company. The attorney may have unique insight into what A.H. Robins was like as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and may be able to connect me to people who were there in its final days.

These weren’t “ah-ha!” moments of uncovering perfectly relevant documents, as may happen in a detective movie. But they were small steps in the practice of investigative journalism as it more often happens, slowly digging away at large question with a small shovel.

Next I turned to the Internet to see what primary documents I could find in the databases for federal cases, which are kept online in a national resource called PACER. In Pacer, I was able to find a 1983 filing that combined 1,700 Dalkon Shield cases across a number of states to work together on the discovery process. The lead attorney was Bradley Post. In Nexus, I was able to find a court document for the case of Loretta Tetuan, one of Post’s clients, who had to have a full hysterectomy because of the Dalkon Shield. Sadly, Mr. Post passed away last year, but he is survived, according to his obituary, by his wife and children. The court documents also listed his co-counsels, a number of whom are alive and have listed numbers. I also found out that the Harvard Law Library maintains a substantial collection of Dalkon Shield litigation material. Loretta Tetuan appears to still live a few miles from where she did at the time of the case, and has a listed number.

There was much to be found online about this lawsuit. But I am sure there is even more to be found in person. I saw an example of this with the diet pill lawsuit: there was only the slightest trace online of it even happening. On the other hand, there is record of the Dalkon Shield lawsuit online. But there if there is one thing my archive experience taught me this week, is that if I am going to write this full book, I need to do some digging in person in Cambridge and Virginia.