The Abortion Pill's Second Life

Relatively Low Use in U.S., But Now Growing in Europe

| 3035 hits

TURIN, Italy, NOV. 9, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Controversy over the abortion pill RU-486 has arisen again, this time in Italy. Last week a Piedmont regional ethics committee gave the green light to a trial use of the pill at the Sant'Anna hospital in Turin. RU-486 can be used during the first 49 days of pregnancy, and in combination with misoprostol causes a so-called chemical abortion of the unborn child.



Trying to justify the move, committee president Alberto Angeli told the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa on Oct. 29 that favored the decision on the grounds that it calls for a greater involvement on the part of women, compared to surgical abortion. The test will be the first time RU-486 has been approved for use in Italy.

Turin's archbishop, Cardinal Severino Poletto, criticized the decision, lamenting the use of medical science to promote death instead of life. In an interview published Oct. 30 in La Stampa, the cardinal expressed his fears that the use of the abortion pill will lead to an increase in the number of women who put an end to their pregnancies. He held out hope, however, that the experiment will not mark the definitive approval of the pill's use, since there was opposition to it on the ethics committee.

Criticism also came from the president of the National Federation of Surgeons, Giuseppe Del Barone, in an interview with the Catholic paper Avvenire published Oct. 30. He argued the use of RU-486 should not be seen as medical progress, since it involves the death of a human being.

Del Barone fears that tolerance of the drug will lead to its indiscriminate use, even by teen-agers. He also noted that the Piedmont committee's approval is contrary to the opposition to RU-486 shown by the national bioethics committee.

Use in the U.S.

September marked the second anniversary of RU-486's approval for use in the United States. In this period the pill has been used for just over 100,000 chemical abortions, the Washington Post reported Sept. 25. The firm that distributes the pill, Danco Laboratories, said that sales have increased significantly this year, with a 36% increase in the first eight months of 2002 over the year-earlier period. The pill, sold as Mifeprex in the United States, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a long
debate.

A relatively small percentage of women seeking abortions are using RU-486 and few doctors outside of abortion clinics are offering it, the New York Times reported Sept. 25. It noted that the 100,000 women who used RU-486 are among the 2.6 million who had abortions in the previous two years.

The report noted that a chemical abortion is no simple matter. Patients must make three separate visits to a doctor, and side effects include abdominal pain, bleeding and often nausea that usually last for nine to 16 days.

Earlier, the Washington Post on April 18 reported that Danco Laboratories sent a letter informing doctors that six women have developed serious illnesses and two have died after taking the drug to induce abortions. But, argued the company, no causal relationship has been established between the drug and the illnesses in any of the cases.

The letter warned doctors to be mindful of the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy -- that is, outside the womb, as in the fallopian tube -- in women given the abortion pill. One of those who died, in fact, succumbed to an ectopic pregnancy (the other died of an infection).

Just over a year ago, U.S. bishops had warned of health risks for women using RU-486. In a fact sheet dated Oct. 3, the bishops' conference criticized the way in which the FDA had approved the pill for use in the country.

"Inexplicably, the FDA-proposed protocol did not mandate on-site observation after taking misoprostol, although this protocol is followed in France, China, Sweden the United Kingdom and is the common practice virtually everywhere the drug combination is used," warned the statement.

The bishops observed that doctors have reported complications such as bleeding, allergic reactions, infections and failure of the procedure to take effect.

Last Aug. 21, a press release by the U.S. bishops welcomed the petition filed the day before with the FDA, seeking a ruling which would withdraw RU-486 from the market on the grounds that it jeopardizes the health and safety of women. The petition was filed by the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Christian Medical Association, and Concerned Women for America.

"The petition sets forth startling evidence that the FDA repeatedly violated its own procedures and safeguards to bring this drug to market," said Cathleen Cleaver, spokeswoman for the bishops' Pro-Life Secretariat. "The evidence suggests a process dominated by politics, with women's health a secondary -- and distant -- concern."

Use spreads in Europe

Wider use of RU-486 has also been approved in Britain on a trial basis, the Observer newspaper reported July 7. For the first time, family-planning centers will be allowed to offer the pill, which until now have been available only in hospital wards and special day units. The government justified the decision saying it would end the long waiting lists for abortion.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the country's biggest provider of abortions, welcomed the move. Although the technique has been available in Britain for a number of years, up to two-thirds of National Health Service clinics do not offer it.

One in every three British women is likely to have an abortion before age 45, says the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: In 2000 there were 188,000 abortions -- representing more than one in five conceptions.

Paul Tully, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the move could put further pressure on women, BBC reported July 7. "A wait before an abortion is not necessarily a distressing consideration," he said, "especially when abortions are often undertaken under enormous pressure and at great apprehension on the part of the woman."

Pro-Life Alliance spokeswoman Josephine Quintavalle said the government was motivated by the money-saving potential of the abortion pill. "You save a lot of money not using anaesthetics. It is quicker, easier and cheaper," she said.

In Germany, the number of women undergoing abortions in 2001 using RU-486 jumped by 44%, according to the German Statistics Office, Reuters reported April 8. The Statistics Office declared that the number of reported abortions in 2001 was 134,964, up slightly from 134,609 in 2000. Of the total, 5,943 abortions, or 4.4%, were performed with RU-486. This compares with 4,120, or 3%, in 2000. The pill hit the German market in late 1999.

In February 1999, during a conference in The Hague to mark the fifth anniversary of the Cairo meeting on population and development, Monsignor Frank Dewane, of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum," explained that use of RU-486 cannot be considered as a legitimate application of family planning "and even less as the exercise of an alleged reproductive right." In Europe, that message seems to be even harder to sell than RU-486.