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Sunday, January 11, 1998
First of Norplant contraceptive cases heads
By PAULINE ARRILLAGA / Associated Press Writer
EDINBURG, Texas (AP) -- One woman claims she was so depressed
she felt like killing her child. Another says she wanted to kill
The common link between the two was a birth control device
surgically implanted in their bodies.
This week, those two women and four others go to court to demand
compensation from the makers of the Norplant contraceptive, alleging
they were deceived about the severity of the drug's side effects.
It is the first of thousands of Norplant lawsuits to go to
trial, and women, doctors and lawyers from around the country
are waiting anxiously for the outcome.
"I'm watching the case with great interest," said
Chris Parks, a Port Arthur lawyer who represents 800 women in
a federal lawsuit against Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, the Pennsylvania
company that manufactures Norplant.
"I feel very confident that if a jury's allowed to see
all the facts, they'll come to the same conclusion that I have,
and that is that these women were wronged by this company,"
Jury selection is scheduled for Tuesday in a state lawsuit
brought by the six Texas women against Wyeth-Ayerst and its parent
company, Madison, N.J.-based American Home Products Corp.
The women are among about 50,000 nationwide who filed suit
over side effects they say they suffered while using Norplant.
About 5,000 women have filed suit in South Texas.
The lawsuit demands actual damages totaling $3 million and
exemplary damages equaling 1 percent of the net worth of American
Home Products, the nation's largest pharmaceutical drug company.
For the nine months ending Sept. 30, 1997, American Home reported
a net income of $1.5 billion and worldwide sales of more than
$10.5 billion. The company's third quarter earnings dipped after
it recalled the diet drugs Pondimin and Redux after studies linked
them to serious heart damage. American Home also faces several
hundred lawsuits involving those products.
Attorneys on both sides of the Norplant lawsuit said a court
order prohibits them from speaking publicly about the case. Veronica
Torrez, the only one of the six plaintiffs who could be reached
by The Associated Press, also declined comment.
Norplant is a contraceptive system consisting of six matchstick-sized
capsules surgically implanted into the upper arm. The capsules
release a synthetic hormone into the bloodstream that prevents
pregnancy for up to five years.
When it first went on the market in the United States in 1991,
Norplant was hailed as a safe, effective and easy form of birth
control. Then the lawsuits starting streaming in.
Women complained of a laundry list of health problems, ranging
from headaches and weight gain to ovarian cysts and depression.
Sivia Cortez, a Hidalgo County resident and plaintiff in this
week's trial, contends she was so depressed while using Norplant
from 1991 to 1993 that she "felt like killing her child,"
according to court documents.
"This had never occurred before Norplant and never occurred
after removal," she told a doctor in one medical report.
Another plaintiff, Maria Munoz, said her depression was so
severe during the three years she used Norplant that she had suicidal
Ms. Torrez said she went from a size 9 to a size 15 while using
Norplant from August 1991 to July 1993. In court documents, she
also said she suffered hair loss and was so depressed she could
not spend time with her daughter.
"That was the biggest loss I suffered," she said
in one medical report.
The lawsuit alleges Wyeth-Ayerst and American Home Products
"purposefully downplayed and understated the health hazards,
side effects and risks associated with the Norplant System."
It contends the companies, through promotional literature,
"fraudulently sought to create the image and impression that
the Norplant System was safe for human use."
The lawsuit also accuses the companies of targeting Hispanic
women in the Rio Grande Valley, especially those who are poor
In a statement, Wyeth-Ayerst said it stands behind Norplant,
calling it "one of the most extensively studied contraceptive
Approved for distribution in 39 countries, Norplant has been
used by about 1 million American women and 2.5 million women worldwide,
the company said.
The contraceptive's makers also noted that they provide extensive
educational materials to both the doctors who insert Norplant
and the patients who use it. Those materials include warnings
about potential side effects.
Last year, a Beaumont judge overseeing the federal Norplant
cases threw out five lawsuits after finding that Wyeth-Ayerst
adequately informed doctors of potential side effects.
Texas law provides that drug makers have a duty to warn only
the doctor -- not the patient -- of a drug's potential side effects.
The ruling has been appealed.
Despite the lawsuits, the Food and Drug Administration and
several physician groups continue to support Norplant, calling
the product a safe contraceptive that offers women a choice in
"It's a really, really good method for those women for
whom it's appropriate," said Dennis Barbour, president of
the 2,500-member Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
in Washington, D.C.
"As a result of the greed on the part of the lawyers who
are filing these suits, it could drive a very good, safe, effective
product out of the market," Barbour said.
Parks, the lawyer in the federal case, insisted the lawsuits
are not about greed.
"I felt the same way until I spent one morning meeting
with these clients. These are really nice people, just like your
neighbor or sister or mom," he said. "None of them came
to me for any other reason than they were really hurt by this
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