Abortion pill fray may be on way to final decision Pill advocates optimistic in spite of Supreme Court rule.

July 20, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Last year, Lawrence Lader -- the man who orchestrated last week's Supreme Court fight over a French abortion pill -- published a book explaining his goal: "RU 486: The Pill That Could End the Abortion Wars."

Mr. Lader lost the first round Friday when the high court blocked a California social worker from taking 12 pills Mr. Lader obtained for her in England.

But by rekindling national debate over this easy alternative to surgical abortion, Mr. Lader's supporters think -- and his opponents fear -- that he moved closer to his goal.

To abortion rights advocates, RU-486 is the instrument that could give American women a truly private right to choose. With a prescription from her doctor, a woman could avoid the trauma of clinic picket lines and the invasiveness of vacuum aspiration, the most common surgical abortion procedure.

Opponents say privacy comes at a price: they insist RU-486 is a threat to women's health but acknowledge that wide availability could lessen the stigma of ending an unwanted pregnancy. "If abortion is more accessible, then people will think it's more acceptable," says a spokeswoman for the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

"They can't picket every pregnant woman and every doctor's office in the country," says Mr. Lader, 72, a founding director of the National Abortion Rights Action League who now directs Abortion Rights Mobilization.

Invented in France in 1981, RU-486 has transformed abortion in that country since hitting the market four years ago. The pill also was recently approved for use in Great Britain.

Research indicates that many women prefer this procedure to surgical abortions.

"I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been able to use RU- 486," a woman who participated in California trials told researchers later. "I knew that I could not endure the indignity and trauma of another [surgical] abortion."

Buoyed by such testimony, a band of American enthusiasts has beat the drum for RU-486 for nearly a decade -- provoking congressional hearings and gaining endorsements from legislatures in California and New Hampshire. But the movement has been stalled by the manufacturer, Roussel-Uclaf, which refuses to seek federal approval to market the pill in the United States.

A company spokesman says "corporate strategy" dictates against bringing the abortion pill to the United States. In an interview with a French TV reporter in the mid-1980s, a top company official said the firm feared America's political climate.

As the stalemate continued this year, Mr. Lader got an idea.

It came to him as he thought of a biography he had written -- the story of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood who was arrested for smuggling Japanese contraceptives into America in the early part of the century. Ms. Sanger is credited with undermining U.S. laws against birth control.

Mr. Lader enlisted Leona Benten, 29, of Berkeley, Calif., to defy the import ban. On July 1, Customs met their plane from London and confiscated the pills, and the legal battle began.

Mr. Lader concedes that overturning the import ban "would be a big symbolic step toward getting the pill here, rather than a practical step."

But Mr. Lader and others argue that symbolic advances may translate into reality.

Opponents of abortion agree and say they'll step up their campaign against the abortion pill.

Marie Bass, director of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, says that even if the drug were legalized tomorrow, it would be available only through clinics where it can be monitored, so its potential to destigmatize abortion would be reduced.

But as time passes, she predicts, "I really think it will diminish the abortion issue . . . ."

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