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Chemical Abortion and RU-486/PG
Chemical abortion (up to nine weeks' pregnancy) can be brought about in two ways: one is RU-486, the French abortion pill associated with the name of Dr. Etienne-Emile Baulieu. The second is a procedure fashioned by American abortionist Richard U. Hausknecht (ironic, the initials R.U.) in which two drugs currently on the market for other purposes methotrexate (used for years to treat cancer, prescribed also as a treatment for severe psoriasis) and the prostaglandin misoprostol (used as an ulcer drug, also known as Cytotec) are administered in such a way as to bring about an abortion.

Both protocols for chemical abortion employ two drugs and at least three clinic or office visits. RU-486 abortions are currently available in France, Sweden, China, and the United Kingdom. If the Clinton administration and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have their way, they will soon be available in the United States.

How it Works

RU-486 is only about 60% effective when used by itself. As a result, it has to be supplemented by a prostaglandin injection. Hence the full name of the procedure is RU-486/PG (for prostaglandin). The effectiveness of RU-486/PG drops from 95% at 49 days to approximately 85% at 63 days. By most accounts, RU-486/PG is as expensive as surgical abortion. Since the Hausknecht method uses two drugs that are relatively inexpensive (each under $10 a dose) while RU-486, a designer drug, can fetch up to $200 a dose, the abortion industry can make more money from RU-486 than from the methotrexate-misoprostol chemical abortions.

RU-486 works by blocking the action of the hormone progesterone which is essential for maintaining a pregnancy. As an antiprogestin, RU-486 mimics the effects of progesterone so successfully that it binds itself to the receptor but without giving the same hormonal response. When pregnancy begins, progesterone performs three essential functions: 1.) it supports the lining of the womb and nourishes the fetus; 2.) it stops the muscle of the womb from contracting, and 3.) it prevents the cervix from dilating. Without progesterone, the pregnancy cannot be maintained. Another way of looking it: RU-486 induces the pregnant woman to menstruate, ridding herself of the pregnancy. According to the medical literature, about 5% of the women who use the RU-486/PG method will still require a surgical abortion.

Safety and Political Concerns

Notwithstanding the claims of its backers, RU-486 is not a magic pill; it does not obviate visiting the clinic or doctor's office at least three times (more often, of course, if something goes wrong). In France, one woman has died and several have gone into cardiac arrest after initiating the RU-486/PG procedure. Severe bleeding is not uncommon; one Iowa woman taking part in a trial of RU-486 lost half her blood and was saved only by the prompt action of the emergency room doctor.

Developed in the early 1980s, RU-486 was approved in October 1988 for use in France. As a result of pro-life protests, the French company which developed the drug, Roussel-Uclaf (the RU, if you will), withdrew the pill from the French market for a few days. Claude Evian, French Health Minister, quickly intervened. Declaring RU-486 the "moral property of women" and invoking for the first time a 1968 French health law, he ordered RU-486 reintroduced, in effect taking the company off the hook.

RU-486 has become a political football in the United States. In May of 1994, the parent company of Roussel-Uclaf, fearing boycotts of its other drugs, transferred the American patent rights to the Population Council, a New York-based birth control and abortion group. In 1994, FDA Director David Kessler put RU-486 on the fast track to approval, giving it "priority status." The Population Council filed its New Drug Application with the FDA on March 18, 1996, and exactly six months later, the FDA issued an "approvable letter" to the Population Council, all but assuring licensing of the RU-486/PG abortion method.

This notwithstanding, the French abortion pill still remains in limbo. While funding is not a problem for the Rockefeller-founded Population Council, finding a manufacturer has proven more of a challenge. After entrusting a convicted forger, Joseph D. Pike, with the task of finding a manufacturer (and suffering a public-relations fiasco, in the process), the Population Council cut its losses and is now leaning in the direction of setting up a one-product company to shield itself from lawsuits once the drug hits the market.

Not for Everybody

RU-486/PG is not for everybody. It is "of no benefit to the baby whatsoever," observed Dr. Mary Jo Sullivan, one of two members of a panel who in July 1996 abstained from voting to recommend RU-486/PG to the FDA. Yet many women will not be candidates for the French abortion pill, among them, women over 35 and under 18 years of age, women with heart problems or women being treated for hypertension, women suffering from serious cases of asthma, bronchitis or diabetes, and women who are moderate or heavy smokers. These health dangers and more have led the three feminist authors of RU-486: Misconceptions, Myths, and Morals (Institute on Women and Technology: Cambridge, MA, 1991) to conclude that RU-486 is unsafe for women. Other feminists, Eleanor Smeal, for one, downplay such concerns and contend that the RU-486/PG pill will "revolutionize" the abortion debate in the United States.

Linguistic Legerdemain

Whenever abortion policy is expanded, language is reworked to accommodate the new "advance." The French abortion pill is no exception. Baulieu realized that abortion had an unsavory connotation, so he coined a new word to attempt to describe what RU-486 does; he calls its action "contragestion." American physician David Grimes chides opponents of chemical abortions as naive at best, ignorant at worst. Why? For failing to realize that Grimes and others have simply redefined "pregnancy" to begin at implantation, that is, at about 14 days after fertilization. (Similar semantic gymnastics are used by those who wish to conduct human embryo research.)

Since RU-486 has already been tarred with a bad reputation pro-life groups have dubbed it "the death pill," the "chemical coat hanger," the abortion industry in the United States is making a concerted effort to refer to it by its generic name, mifepristone, with hopes of renaming it once it gets to the American market. (RU-486 goes by the name of Mifegyne in France.)

The abortion industry also prefers to speak of the method by which early pregnancies are terminated as "medical abortion" rather than "chemical abortion." Abortionists hope to cash in on what they perceive to be the large market of women who are uneasy with the prospect of "surgical abortion" and prefer the "control" and the "empowerment" given by a "medical abortion."

Public Relations Blitz

The American abortion industry has undertaken a high-powered ad campaign to sell RU-486/PG. Its chief points:

     1.) Women are constantly told that RU-486 abortions will be private, easy, safe the fact that no anesthesia is needed is emphasized as a selling point. RU-486 will make abortion a private matter between a woman and her doctor, in this way, abortion clinic protests will become a thing of the past.

     2.) Since the IUD and Norplant have effectively been taken out of the contraceptive and abortive arsenal (due to legitimate health concerns and litigation, points rarely mentioned), RU-486 abortions will add to women's birth control choices, it is claimed. Along the same lines, some are recommending the use of RU-486 as an emergency contraceptive.

     3.) Abortion providers point out that RU-486 may have legitimate medical uses. Among the diseases said to be promising for RU-486 research: breast cancer, endometriosis, fibroid tumors, Alzheimer's, depression, the treatment of the HIV virus, nonresectable meningioma, ulcers, glaucoma, and Cushing's Syndrome.

     4.) Because of these potential medical uses, RU-486 proponents are urged to stress the threat to the freedom of continuing medical research which would come about if pro-lifers are allowed to continue to block a promising medical advance.

     5.) Abortion advocates count on chemical abortions to increase the pool of physicians willing to take part in the grisly abortion trade. Up to a third of ob-gyns who do not perform surgical abortions say they would offer chemical abortion if the drug became available. Speaking of the methotrexate abortion method of Hausknecht, but with RU-486 also in mind, Vicki Saporta, Executive Director of the National Abortion Federation, notes: "There will be additional doctors who don't perform surgical abortions who will offer the medical [chemical] abortion procedures."

Let's be honest. When used as an abortifacient, RU-486/PG is not real medicine. It is part of the culture of death that we are called upon to battle. There is also another use for the "RU-" in RU-486: as with direct abortion itself, the chemical killer is R.U. indeed Really Unnecessary.

May 1998

Fr. Germain Kopaczynski, OFM Conv.
Director of Education
The National Catholic Bioethics Center