Redefining "The Pill" -- The Coming Battle Over RU486

Ready or not, the most controversial medication in history is close to being accepted for use in this country. Mifepristone, better known as RU486 (the abortion pill), will probably be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before the end of this year. Nationwide use of this drug may soon be stealing headlines from mad bombers and the Olympics.WHAT IS IT? RU486 is a drug that blocks the flow of progesterone, a key hormone in the establishment and maintenance of human pregnancy. As a result, the drug causes miscarriage when applied in early pregnancy. RU486 also can be used as a contraceptive when used within 72 hours after intercourse and has the potential for inducing menstruation when administered in the last half of the menstrual cycle.WHAT ARE ITS IMPLICATIONS?"In some ways, the approval of RU486 will mean the end of the abortion debate," maintains Scott Blanchard, Director of Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood. "RU486 will put the issue where it ought to be in the first place -- in the hands of the woman or couple and their health care provider. Abortion should be essentially a private decision.""The debate will continue until Roe vs. Wade is overturned," counters Betty Kunkel, President of Northern Michigan Right To Life. "If RU486 is approved by the FDA, there will be a dramatic increase in early abortions and abortions in general."Since 1981, women in 20 countries have used RU486, involving over 150,000 women in Europe alone. The drug was first approved for use in France in September 1988 where it was developed by the pharmaceutical company Roussel-Uclaf. In October 1988, Rousell-Uclaf suspended distribution of RU486 because of anti-abortion protests in the United States, France, and West Germany. Two days later, the French Minister of Health ordered the company to resume distribution in the interests of public health. RU486 has also been approved by regulatory agencies for use in Great Britain, China and Sweden.Roussel-Uclaf originally had no intentions of marketing the drug in the U.S. or any other country where political and social conditions were not receptive to RU486. In the U.S., the Bush administration put RU486 on a list of drugs banned by the FDA. In 1992 the Clinton administration asked the FDA to re-examine the import ban. Later, Roussel-Uclaf donated the U.S. rights for RU486 to the Population Council, a non-profit research institution. The FDA now appears ready to approve RU486 for use in this country after analyzing testing results from Europe and the United States.ARE THERE SIDE EFFECTS?Time magazine noted that RU486 abortions can have side effects that are "painful, messy and protracted." Even the supporters of RU486 admit to the possibility of significant, short-term problems for some women who administer RU486. Common side effects are similar to the "morning sickness" of a normal pregnancy -- nausea, headache, weakness and fatigue. Less likely to occur are cramps, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and uterine bleeding. In rare cases women have required surgical abortions and/or blood transfusions.WILL DEMONSTRATIONS & VIOLENCE END?If abortions become widely accessible, what will happen to abortion foes who focus their energies on disrupting operations at abortion clinics or worse?"I am hopeful that the violence will end when women don't need to go outside of their ordinary health care channels for abortions," responds Blanchard. "On the other hand, extremists may become desperate if they are not able to get their way in a court of law or the court of public opinion." "The clinics will still be there", according to Kunkel. "The strategies will stay the same. Emotional issues such as abortion bring out the kooks. 99.9% of 'Right To Life' advocates are against violence."Yet, if tens of thousands of health care professionals begin offer RU486 to their patients, protesters have a dilemma -- "Who do we target?" Both Blanchard and Kunkel agree that the focus of some abortion foes may shift from clinics to the manufacturers. After Roussel-Uclaf's donation of its patents to the Population Council, that nonprofit organization is looking for a U.S. manufacturer subject to approval of the FDA. Abortion opponents are already planning to organize a boycott of Roussel-Uclaf and its parent company. Despite the possibility of boycotts, several dozen companies have indicated their interest in manufacturing and distributing RU486 in the U.S.No matter what your view of abortion, it's difficult to disagree that the consequences of RU486 being introduced in this country would be revolutionary. Let's hope that this new variable in the equation can somehow bring the passion and resources of partisans on all sides of the issue together so we can all finally work to prevent unintended pregnancies from happening in the first place.

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