TWO SCIENTISTS testified before a congressional committee recently that an import ban on the French "abortion pill" known as RU-486 has stymied research into the drug's effectiveness in treating other diseases. The ban is a clear victory for anti-choice forces, whose agenda goes far beyond halting surgical abortions. The movement has also been successful in eroding the right to birth control, a right that the overwhelming majority of Americans support and that few realize is even under attack.
What is at stake is control of women's bodies, and of women. The anti-choice forces would impose their agenda on the entire nation: Sex should only take place between two married adults, and only for the purpose of making babies. To a startling extent, this agenda is taking hold.
A National Academy of Sciences panel reported recently that the United States is decades behind Europe in the development of contraceptives. The panel found that contraceptive methods available in the United States do not meet the needs of many people -- leading to millions of unwanted pregnancies, unnecessary abortions and avoidable sterilizations. Yet no fundamentally new contraceptives have been developed here in the last three decades, and only one company is still carrying on contraceptive research.
Earlier this year, anti-choice forces were able to pressure AT&T to cut off $50,000 in yearly donations to Planned Parenthood, even though those funds were for a teen pregnancy prevention program. This summer, Dayton Hudson, a Minnesota-based retailing firm with a history of support for community organizations, tried to end its 22-year financial relationship with Planned Parenthood, although the decision was reversed in the face of protests. Dayton's $18,000-a-year grant is designated for family planning, not abortion.
Last year in Wisconsin, the governor was persuaded to veto $500,000 allotted by the legislature for a pregnancy-prevention clinic for Milwaukee teen-agers. Pennsylvania hasn't funded family planning centers since 1981. And in California a law -- later reversed -- that slashed funding for the state's 500 family planning clinics reportedly forced some women to consider choosing between birth control and feeding their children.
Straddling the line between abortion and birth control is RU-486, a pill that can end pregnancies up to eight weeks after conception. One of the safest, cheapest and easiest methods of abortion, RU-486 can be obtained in France and other European countries. The American Medical Association has recommended U.S. testing of RU-486 but because of the anti-choice opposition, no U.S. company has even applied to do so.
There are many reasons for government and industry to support and expand family planning:
* Economically, it makes sense. A recent study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that public funding of family planning services for women who might otherwise not have access to services saves taxpayers an estimated $1.8 billion a year in medical, welfare, and nutritional programs that would result from unplanned pregnancies.
* And, of course, family planning helps prevent unwanted pregnancies. Consider this grim statistic: 43 percent of all American girls will become pregnant before they are 20. The U.S. teen pregnancy rate is higher than that of at least 30 other industrialized nations -- from Italy to Israel, from Ireland to Iceland. The infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than in 19 industrialized nations -- it rivals Third World levels in some cities -- but "pro-lifers" are silent on this score. There is no "operation rescue" for children victimized by poverty, illiteracy or drugs. And the movement's true agenda simply assures that millions more unwanted children will be born each year.
Elizabeth Holtzman is the comptroller of New York City.