Medical Mystery


The California Coven Project, by Bob Stickgold, New York: Ballantine Books, 1981, 280 pp., $2.50.

This fast-reading novel takes a scalpel to the State-licensed medical monopoly, while simultaneously treating a number of feminist issues in a warm and sympathetic way. Science fiction, written by a scientist, provides the ideal framework for an enjoyable treatment of the subject.

Maggie Stone, a registered nurse, is practicing as a midwife in the northern California of about 1990. It is a world not so different from ours: energy is a little scarcer (and rationed), and local pay phone calls are $3. The biggest changes are the ubiquity of home computers and terminals, together with access to public data bases and the emergence of bacterial strains that are ultraresistant to antibiotics. It is the latter that has made hospital delivery so risky that physicians have reluctantly allowed the legalization of midwifery.

Loath to relinquish control of an aspect of medicine, however, the state medical association is attempting to require the use of fetal monitors at all births, despite the lack of proven benefits and some clear risks. The dispute fractures the California Midwives Association; Maggie and her friends form a splinter group, and they are threatened with loss of their licenses for rejecting "standard practices" of the medical community.

At the same time, Maggie, driven to desperate measures by her mother's terminal cancer, turns to research in folk medicine. And she finds a folk remedy that works. Nobel Prize material? Not necessarily, for how can she make her discovery public? Maggie has no doctorate, no professorship, no government grant, no position at a prestigious research institution, and no explanation for how or why her cure works. Moreover, if she goes public, not only does she risk disbelief and ridicule; she may also be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license, which is a felony.

Maggie and a few of her friends attempt a clandestine research study, the California Coven Project. But word leaks out. Since the experimenters are also members of the splinter Natural Midwives Association, this may turn the state legislature against them and cost them their licenses. Worse yet, some of the cancer patients are dying, casting doubt on the "100 percent cure." Maggie and her daughter go underground, and the last half of the book is spent resolving the situations. Much of the action takes place in the courtroom and legislative hearings.

Stickgold is a research physiologist, and he has researched this book rather well. Besides being fun to read, it is a clear exposition of the folly of establishing a State-licensed orthodoxy. Have we already overlooked the cancer cure because it didn't come from the National Institutes of Health, the University of California at Berkeley, or the Sloan-Kettering Institute? It is well known that antibiotic resistance is due to the over-prescription of antibiotics and that the rate of Caesarean-section births has been increasing significantly. More medicine means more profitespecially when the patient has no alternative to the medical monopoly. The book promises to bring licensing issues to the attention of a mass-market audience.

The California Coven Project also demonstrates that a man can write a book about women's issues with understanding and sympathy. In our polarized times, that is a significant accomplishment.

Roger M. Firestone holds a Ph.D. in computer science and works for a major computer manufacturer.