WASHINGTON -- Abortion rights advocates in Congress have stepped up their efforts to overturn a U.S. government ban on importation of the controversial French abortion pill RU-486, noting that it also may be helpful in the treatment of such life-threatening illnesses as breast cancer.
The battleground shifted to a House subcommittee hearing, where medical authorities testified yesterday that the refusal of the Food and Drug Administration to allow RU-486 into the country was based more on the anti-abortion politics of the Bush administration than on scientific judgments.
A witness representing the National Right to Life Committee, however, argued that the drug is potentially dangerous and defended the FDA's decision to bar its use as "sound medicine."
Lawmakers who favor federal testing of the drug and its eventual marketing in the United States contended that extensive experience in France and Britain has shown RU-486 to be safe and effective for abortion and to hold promise for victims of several dreaded diseases.
The hearing came shortly after national attention was focused on RU-486 in an incident staged by the pill's proponents.
Based on their tip, U.S. Customs officials seized the drug from a 29-year-old California woman, Leona Benten, when she attempted to bring enough of the drug into the country to cause her own abortion. She bought the drug legally in Europe.
The seizure, Ms. Benten's legal challenge, her victory in U.S. District court, a reversal by a U.S. Appeals court and the Supreme Court's eventual 7-2 ruling against her dramatized the issue of the FDA's import ban.
Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of a House Small Business XTC subcommittee on regulation, business opportunities and energy, said yesterday he would introduce legislation soon to require the National Institutes of Health to obtain the drug, evaluate it in government-sponsored clinical trials and publish the results.
While it appeared unlikely that Mr. Wyden's bill would attract enough support to ensure congressional passage this year, the panel's hearings were designed to lay the groundwork for future action -- similar to the recent congressional attempt to lift Bush administration restrictions on fetal tissue research.
While Mr. Bush vetoed legislation that would have expanded U.S. government research on Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, congressional supporters built a broad bipartisan network in favor of the proposal.
The president's stand on the abortion pill also contrasts sharply with that of his Democratic challenger, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who has decided to make abortion rights one of the defining issues of the 1992 campaign for the White House.
At the committee hearing, Dr. Marjorie Braude of the American Medical Women's Association denounced the FDA ban on RU-486, terming it an example of "political expedience taking precedence over the public's health."
Dr. Braude said the focus on the drug's use in abortions has obscured other properties that European and Canadian studies show may provide a better treatment for breast cancer, a disease that kills an estimated 46,000 women a year in the United States.
Richard Glasow, representing the National Right to Life Committee's anti-abortion viewpoint, argued that the French drug presented "real dangers" to women's health when used to facilitate abortions.
He said his organization does not object to medical research on uses of RU-486 unrelated to abortion but accused abortion rights advocates of exaggerating the potential benefits of the drug.