This article appears in the February 2000 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Josephine Quintavalle


When the chemical abortion pill RU486, was launched in France in 1982 by Etienne_Emile Baulieu, for the pharmaceutical company Roussel Uclaf, it was greeted with immense enthusiasm by abortion promoters and great horror by the pro_life movement. Since then it appears that some half a million women have used the drug but, in effect, compared to surgical abortion, these figures are relatively small, and the spread of the drug has remained limited.

The original RU486 (and more recent variants such as Mifegyne, Cytotec and others), works by altering the uterine hormonal control system which normally maintains the ongoing stability of the developing child, thus causing the womb to reject the baby. Usage is high in Scotland where 27% of abortions are chemical, as opposed to 5.6% in England. Until recently the international profile extended only to Sweden and France.

Suddenly last Summer, country after country began to give its approval to the use of this controversial drug. Through the London_based European Medicine Agency, health authorities from eight European countries (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Den mark, Spain, Finland, Greece and The Netherlands) registered the drug at the beginning of July: subject to formal Government approval, one can expect the drug to be in use in these countries within the next months.

Switzerland and Russia quickly followed the original eight: more recently, Israel and South Africa have also given approval. Pro_lifers in Switzerland mounted an immediate legal challenge to the distribution of the RU486 (or Mifegyne as it is now commonly known) but were sadly unsuccessful. However, good news is reaching us from Germany that doctors there are very reluctant to prescribe it, even though the drug has been legalised.

That, briefly, is the current situation as regards licensing, although obviously new countries may be adding their endorsement at this very moment. There is, for example, mounting pressure in the United States for the FDA to give its final approval to chemical abortion; it is believed that this could come at any time, with Canada promising in the event to quickly follow its neighbour’s lead.

There has been much subterfuge adopted in getting the abortion pill onto the world market so success fully, with drug companies passing the rights to population control charities or down to minor chemical groups. The present major runners in the world RU486 race are a small Paris_based company called Exelgyn (owned not surprisingly by the former Roussel-Uclaf chairman Dr Edouard Sakiz) which now owns world rights and is responsible for the European campaign, plus a little known American Group called Danco which is preparing to take control of the market over there. The abortion pill itself ap pears at the moment to be produced largely in China, where one hates to imagine the awful trials endured by Chinese women.

Any attempts by pro_life groups to link the mass abortions of today’s world with the horrors of Nazi Germany are always greeted with outrage by the abortionists; but it is hard to avoid such parallels when one explores the unedifying genealogy of the key pharmaceutical giants involved in the development of RU486. The abortion pill is marketed as a better, easier method of abortion. Where have we heard that sort of reasoning before? It was particularly tragic to find Israel’s name among the list of the latest countries to embrace RU486.

Roussel_Uclaf’s parent company is the German giant, Hoechst AG. Hoechst changed its name after World War II, in an attempt to disassociate from ‘I.G. Farben’, the producers of the holocaust cyanide gas Zyklon_B, developed at the time as a better method of extermination. But changing names does not change the past: both Hoechst and Schering (responsible for the 'morning_after_pill in England) are currently involved in litigation suits initiated by Jewish survivors of Nazi Germany. It is hard to eradicate the past.

The American Life League calls the pill the ‘chemical coat hanger’; another pro_life movement describes it as a ‘human pesticide’: alarmist rhetoric but all too legitimate if one accepts the current liberal mood of the American media. There is an increasingly triumphant tone to articles about the eagerly awaited abortion pill. ‘Manufactured in secret and taken in the privacy of a doctor’s office, RU486 will leave the abortion war without a battle ground _ and perhaps with a peace treaty in sight’, writes Margaret Talbot for the New York Times Magazine in July this year, prophesying that compromise will bring about the demise of the pro_life movement. In the future she envisages, the abortion clinic will become obsolete, as any GP anywhere will be able to prescribe and supervise chemical abortion. There will be no more struggling past pro_life picketers. No more death threats. And, since the drug is taken so early in pregnancy, women will no longer be exposed to the emotional power of the developing fetus. After all, the abortionists concede, nobody likes late abortions, so let’s get them over with as quickly as possible. Nobody really cares about embryos, they argue. And they promise that the abortion pill will remove both psychological and physical pain. It will seem more natural, exactly the same as a miscarriage. Infections and surgical mishaps will be things of the past. And so on. These are their cunning marketing tools, wrapped in the coercive language of freedom of reproductive choice.

The abortion pill is, however, not anywhere near as easy to take as the promoters suggest: there can be such serious side_effects as excessive bleeding and pain, plus considerable emotional distress as the woman sees for herself the abortion taking place. 2_3 visits with a health professional may be necessary, making the procedure still relatively expensive: The failure rate is calculated at somewhere between 7_10%.

The drug is frequently confused with the ‘morning after pill’ (such as the PC4) which can only be used within 72 hours of intercourse and can, therefore, theoretically sometimes work as a contraceptive rather than abortifacient. Abortion proponents are very happy for this confusion to exist. A pill, considered by the public a contraceptive, is much easier to market.

In the Third World, the language of reproductive rights gives way to the rhetoric of population control and eugenics. The French inventor of the RU486, Baulieu himself, did not hesitate to stress his concerns with ‘the complications of overpopulation’ as he foisted the chemical pill on the world. October 12 this year was ringed in black by the abortion lobby, as the symbolic dreaded day when the 6 billionth child would be born into our overpopulated planet. Marie Stopes International, Population Concern and International Planned Parenthood, joined with Clare Short MP in Trafalgar Square on that day to commiserate over the global situation and plan ever more invasive ways of controlling the reproduction of the developing world. Another key player is the United Nations Population Fund, currently under investigation for their apparent collaboration with Slobodan Milosevic in reproductive control programmes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo: ethnic cleansing without guns. With the spread of the abortion pill, will the dream of a cheap and easily portable way to control Third World Population Growth quickly become a reality?

Chemical abortions are put forward as the obvious and best solution for countries with poor hospital facilities and inadequate contraceptive options. Pills are easy to take - no surgery needed. And although the abortion pill may be expensive at the moment, mass production will soon bring down the costs, with incidentally enormous profits for the drug companies. It is not hard to be cynical about such programmes.

It is not very hard, either, to envisage a future where abortion drugs could be routinely fed into food supplies or combined with vaccinations. This is not science fiction. It has already happened in 1995 in the Philippines, where an abortifacient was combined with a tetanus vaccine. Suspicion was aroused because only women were offered the vaccine, even though men were equally vulnerable to tetanus. Food manipulation has produced a corn with built_in contraceptive properties. Mass production of such a modified staple food is a really scary thought.

Taiwan, is one country currently struggling against the reality of the population control ethic. Trials for RU486 are being conducted there in four centres. On August 21 this year, their Department of Health urged the island’s women not to continue using the drug, noting that preliminary clinical tests put its failure rate at 44%. Inaccurate dosages or insufficient quantities of a second drug required to be taken with the RU486, are suggested reasons for the failures. Ongoing pregnancy, listed as a ‘rare complication’ in a Medscape Women’s Health article on Medical Abortion, is hardly ‘rare’ for the Taiwanese women just quoted. Such failure rates are particularly tragic for the tiny lives which will then be subjected to surgical abortion. While the Western woman may have easy access to a surgeon, the Third World citizens will not be so lucky. Babies carried to term after early use of the abortion pill are very likely to suffer serious abnormalities.

How often have we seen similar scenarios? Poor quality drugs dumped on Third World countries, subjects used as guinea pigs without consent. Norplant and sub standard IUDs have been with drawn from the American market after huge litigation cases, but not from Third World countries where women have no such access to legal redress.

The intent, of course, is to make the pill as cheap, simple and effective as possible: many of the initial serious complications of RU486 have been eliminated. Other similar abortion drugs are being developed. Would it be apocalyptic to predict a day when women will be able to keep a supply of do_it_yourself abortion pills in the medicine cupboard? We have almost reached that stage with the ‘morning_after pill’. Marie Stopes International is promoting on the internet a �10 special offer Millennium Party Pack containing the ‘morning_after_pill’ and a party balloon, and BPAS and Brooke Advisory are among others suggesting women stock up with this so_called emergency drug. Sales will boom: Schering stockholders will smile. So much for the morning_after_pill. I predict the abortion pill will eventually follow suit. Current abortion figures for England and Wales (1998) show a 24,000 in crease since 1995. With easily accessible early chemical abortion, these numbers will climb and climb.

The implications of recent developments are catastrophic. For the 18 years since its invention, effective boycotts and courageous protests organised by pro_life groups did manage to contain the spread of the abortion drug, but now it is moving across the world at an almost unstoppable rate. It is almost as the journalist from the New York Times predicted. The pro_life movement seems to be losing the battle.

Economic sanctions, such as boycotts (or the threat of) against pharmaceutical companies, seem sadly to work better than ethical debate. In the United States, if the drug has not yet reached the open market, it is because no company is particularly keen to produce or distribute it. The American pro lifers speak with their purses. Let us hope they continue to do so successfully.

What to do in this country? Spreading information is obviously important. An Austrian Youth Group suggests faxing or writing to Exelgyn in Paris as a first port of protest, address: Firma Exelgyn, 6 Rue Christophe Colomb, 75008 Paris, Fax: 0033. Perhaps the Guild of Catholic Doctors could take a leaf out of the German doctors book, and initiate formal opposition to chemical abortion? Or maybe a specific European campaign could be started, calling on board doctors from all the countries which have recently issued licenses. I am sure most patients would welcome the assurance that their physician would have nothing to do with such a drug.

Mrs. Josephine Quintavalle is Founder of Comments on Reproduction Ethics.

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