The controversial French “abortion pill,” RU 486, continues to stir heated debate in the United States. The latest round took place at a special “after-recess hearing” on Capitol Hill, where scientists charged that a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on personal use of RU 486 was inhibiting research into other uses of the drug.

Approved in France two years ago, RU 486 is an antiprogestin drug that, when taken with a prostaglandin hormone, causes the uterus to expel a fertilized egg within a few weeks of conception (CT, Dec. 9, 1988, p. 58).

For more than a year, the FDA has banned importation of RU 486 for personal use as an abortifacient, while allowing limited importation for medical research. FDA associate commissioner for regulatory affairs Ronald Chesemore testified that the ban, which complies with congressional statutes preventing the importation of unapproved drugs, was enacted out of concern that “publicity about the use of these drugs overseas would lead to unsupervised use or clandestine distribution” here. Chesemore emphasized that there are “no restrictions on research” using the drug. Currently, there are ten ongoing FDA-approved research projects using RU 486, he said.

However, scientists complain that the drug’s manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf, is holding up research imports in an apparent attempt to pressure the U.S. to overturn its ban. According to William Regelson, professor of medicine at the Medical College of Virginia, Roussel Uclaf will “only make RU 486 available to a country that accepts RU 486 as an abortifacient.” Regelson is among a group of medical experts that believes RU 486 has extensive “possible value” in treating Cushing’s disease, breast cancer, AIDS, diabetes, hypertension, and a host of other diseases.

Regelson conceded that the manufacturer has its share of blame for the lack of available RU 486 for research. “I think it very unethical of Roussel Uclaf to make this an issue tied to abortion,” he admitted. However, he also had criticism for the FDA. “I get the feeling that the FDA got carried away by the pressures of Right to Lifers,” he said. He urged the FDA ban be lifted so that more research can go forward.

Ideological Opposition

John Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and a medical doctor, charged that the hearing—called by abortion advocate Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) to discuss the FDA policy—was “ideological” and not scientifically based. NRLC education director Richard Glasow agreed. “The evidence is fragmentary at most and absolutely inconclusive that this drug is anything more than a drug that kills an unborn baby whose heart has started to beat,” he told CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Said Willke, “[Proabortion forces] are trying to find any reason they can to justify RU 486’s use.”

Prolifers fear that if the drug is approved in the U.S. for any medical use, it will also be distributed illegally for abortion purposes. Despite that fear, Willke said his group has not tried to stop research with RU 486.

Abortion advocates and feminist groups have made the U.S. distribution of RU 486 a major goal. National Organization for Women president Molly Yard said at a recent press conference that she expects the drug to be available in the U.S. within the next five years. “The question is, will it come legally, and therefore be administered safely under a doctor’s supervision, or illegally, with increased risks for women?” she asked.

At the same time, prolife groups have threatened a massive boycott of the French manufacturer, its German parent company, Hoechst AG, and all their subsidiaries. “We have done our homework,” said Willke. “They do a $6 billion business annually in the U.S., and we know exactly who owns what, what the companies produce, where, and how much.”

The propaganda battle will likely heat up again within the next few weeks. Willke and Glasow have written a book against RU 486 that is due out at the end of this month—at roughly the same time as the English translation of a book supporting the drug, written by the French professor who popularized it, Etienne Beaulieu.

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