An End Run for the Abortion Pill

ELLEN GOODMAN

May 14, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Up in New Hampshire, where mud season is giving way to black flies, the legislature is getting ready to flash the famous Granite State streak of independence. This conservative Republican territory, known for its presidential primaries and its lack-of-tax structure, is expected to pass a resolution in support of the abortion pill. It will offer the state as an American test site for RU486.

The legislators don't expect to see a team flying in from Europe to set up a lab in downtown Concord the morning after the vote. But they want to send a message to the FDA and the manufacturer. The state that made George Bush president and the people who put ''Live Free or Die'' on their license plates, are moving against the barriers that have kept RU486 out of the country.

Since 1988, the drug that provides safe and early abortions has been available in France where the minister of health once called it ''the moral property of women.'' Now it's licensed for use in Britain and Sweden as well. But Roussel-Uclaf and its parent company Hoechst regard the American political ''climate'' as too hot to touch. Afraid of getting burned by boycotts against their other drugs, especially by Catholic hospitals, and afraid of liability lawsuits, they haven't even attempted to market RU486 here.

The FDA, in turn, has banned importing the drug by listing it as a dangerous substance. This has meant that our doctors can't use RU486 in therapy and our scientists can't use it for research, even when their work has nothing to do with abortion.

So far, RU486 has shown to be useful in easing labor, and treating Cushing's disease. It has shown promise for the treatment of ovarian and breast cancer, endometriosis and even brain tumors. But what we don't know has been sacrificed to what we do know. Taken with another drug in the first seven weeks of pregnancy, RU486 induces a miscarriage. It brings on menstruation.

The pill wouldn't entirely replace surgical procedures. It's not for women over 35 or for smokers. But it would put most early abortions into a very private realm. A woman would ''get an abortion'' by swallowing.

RU486 has alarmed anti-abortion leaders who have made it a prime target. What, after all, would become of the favorite strategies of pro-life groups if RU486 were available? There would be fewer women to harass on the way to fewer clinics. In the early weeks, there would be no fetuses to enlarge to placard-sized portraits. The line pro-lifers draw between doctors evil ''abortionists'' and women as their ''victims'' is erased when women take their own medicine.

The pill has also become a priority for many in the abortion-rights movement who worry about the changing of the guard in the Supreme Court. Hundreds of bills limiting access to abortion have appeared in one state legislature after another. The momentum for RU486 expresses impatience with Roussel-Uclaf, but also a desire to find an offensive strategy.

In New Hampshire, for example, the massive legislature of more than 400 members -- one-third female, all earning $100 per year -- passed a bill upholding abortion rights, only to have it vetoed by the governor. The current resolution is an attempt to stake out new territory. As Peg Dobbie of the New Hampshire Abortion Rights Action League said, ''It's great to see a legislature talking about increasing reproductive choices rather than limiting them.''

There are currently other RU486 bills in the works in both California and Minnesota. Several states are considering trials of look-alike drugs under ''mini-FDA'' laws that could allow them to test and market within their own borders.

On the national level, Rep. Ron Wyden of Oregon has introduced a bill that would take RU486 off the dangerous drug list so that it could be used for research. And on the local level, New York's Mayor David Dinkins has asked 33 other mayors to write both Roussel-Uclaf and President Bush in support of testing.

All of this is an attempt to build up the demand in order to get the supply. But it also raises a familiar paradox.

Pro-choice people have long regarded abortion as a private decision. Americans overwhelmingly want to end the prolonged and nasty war over abortion. RU486 offers the best possibility for muting the conflict and for protecting privacy.

But once again in New Hampshire, it's clear that the effort to protect privacy hinges on public action. Sometimes only the government can keep away the government.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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