FROM time to time you hear complaints from people of apparent good will about how much national attention is being focused on AIDS.
What about cancer? say cancer survivors. What about heart disease? And in these complaints there is usually a touch of envy. Many of us whose lives were mangled by mortal illnesses suffered privately, confident that doctors and researchers and the purveyors of government grants were doing their level best to eradicate the scourge. We waited. And waited. And waited.
Then the AIDS activists disrupted hearings and marched down city streets and agitated, agitated, agitated for better drugs, for speedier approvals, for more research money. Some people think they are too militant. If I could help give someone I loved a second chance, or even an extra year, what people think would not worry me a bit.
It's certain we women can learn from this, after all these years of waiting politely for a male medical and governmental establishment to be nice to us. When the president pandered yet again to the anti-abortion lobby by vetoing a measure that would pay for research on women's health issues because it also lifted the ban on fetal tissue research, it was clear we'd been polite too long.
And then there's RU-486, a pill that causes early abortion. Comparisons are odious, but imagine if doctors discovered a method of vasectomy that required only a handful of capsules and a drink of water. It'd be approved so fast it would make your head spin.
A pregnant social worker named Leona Benten was stopped at Kennedy Airport in New York when she flew in from Europe carrying a duly prescribed dose of RU-486. The drug is on a special import alert list, although even some Food and Drug Administration officials say that this has nothing to do with safety. It didn't go on the list at the behest of serious scientists, but at the request of conservative members of Congress, thereby making the FDA an arm of the right-to-life lobby.
But RU-486 is not just a drug that induces abortion. There is evidence that it may help fight breast cancer, a disease that leads to the deaths of 44,000 American women a year. Some doctors think the drug could prove useful in treating adult diabetes, hypertension and other cancers. But they -- and you, if you suffer from any of those conditions -- are stymied here in the United States by the unhappy alliance of politics, medicine and corporate caution.
The pharmaceutical company that manufactures RU-486, Roussel Uclaf, has acted as businesses tend to do. It pulled the drug off the market in its native France after protests, putting it back on only after the French government ordered it to do so. The company has not even sought approval for RU-486 in this country, where posses of men illustrate their respect for life by thrusting fetal remains at candidates and clinic escorts. In several European countries, where there is less fetus-throwing, RU-486 is being used with success and safety.
There is a kind of resonance to all this for anyone who has read Ellen Chesler's marvelous biography of Margaret Sanger. One legal challenge described in the book is entitled -- truly -- United States v. One Package Containing 120, more or less, Rubber Pessaries to Prevent Conception. The offending devices were sent to Mrs. Sanger by a Japanese doctor, then confiscated by customs. This was not an uncommon problem; after Mrs. Sanger married the inventor of 3-In-One oil, he smuggled diaphragms in the product's containers. It all seems rather quaint, as Leona Benten's difficulties someday will, which is cold comfort to her today.
Ms. Benten brought the ban on RU-486 to the public's attention. Sadly, the attendant fuss may also have reinforced Roussel Uclaf's dedication to conflict avoidance in the United States, at least for the time being.
But contained in this episode are the seeds of a powerful lobby: women who want abortions to be performed as early and as safely as possible; women who have lost mothers to breast cancer and are at risk themselves; women who believe that health care should be separate from a political agenda.
Oh, and women who vote. Those familiar with the politics of RU-486 believe that it could be licensed in short order if the political atmosphere changed. Not in time for Leona Benten, but not a moment too soon for millions of other women who must be less patient and more militant about health care.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.