For RU486, we'll need a girlcott

Anna Quindlen

March 17, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

IT'S TIME for a girlcott. A girlcott is, of course, the opposite of a boycott, and there's a need for one now that there's a chance to bring RU486 to the United States.

RU486 is a drug that induces abortion very, very early on in pregnancy, with no surgical invasion, no anesthesia and no risk of infection. "An antihormone," the French researcher Etienne-Emile Baulieu, one of its inventors, calls it. "A muscular little molecule that interferes with hormonal messages." But RU486 could be a muscular little molecule that interferes with the anti-abortion movement, too, and that is why you are going to be hearing so much about it, and about boycotts as well.

A pharmaceutical approach could remove many abortions from the clinics that opened in the years after the procedure became legal in America. There were good reasons for abortion to be centered there. The clinics were less expensive and less daunting than hospitals, more female friendly.

But they have become easy and obvious targets, torched, defaced, harassed. Think of the anti-abortion movement without clinic attacks and what do you have? A march on Washington?

Targeting doctors' offices, where women might be provided with RU486 amid those being treated for other conditions, would be more difficult and less tolerated.

And RU486 might meet a certain comfort level in this area of public psychic discomfort. While a surgical abortion usually cannot be performed until at least the seventh week of pregnancy, RU486 can be used earlier, when there has been little embryonic development. An early hormonal shift that empties the womb may seem less disturbing to some than a later surgical intervention.

Less disturbing is not what anti-abortion activists want.

They have countered by saying that the pill will make abortion casual, an omnipresent charge that is an insult to women. And they call RU486 "chemical warfare," an ironic choice of words since some of them have waged chemical warfare on clinics this year with acid attacks.

They intend to wage corporate warfare against the drug. The parent company of Roussel-Uclaf, the French pharmaceutical company that developed RU486, is Hoechst, a huge German conglomerate. In 1988 a Roussel-Uclaf shareholders' meeting was picketed by demonstrators shouting, "You are turning the uterus into crematory ovens."

Corporations will go a long way to avoid that sort of scene, and soon the company changed its mind about marketing the drug. But the French minister of health demanded the company go ahead with its plans to distribute it, saying RU486 was "the moral property of women," a lead that should now be followed by his American equivalent, the secretary of health and human services. There are promising signs that the company is finally willing to make the drug available in the United States, chief among them a recent meeting between the head of the Food and Drug Administration and the president of Roussel-Uclaf. The company says it does not want to distribute the drug itself, but would be willing to reach an agreement with someone else to do so.

Anti-abortion activists say they will boycott the companies that market RU486; supporters of legal abortion should pledge to support those companies. Pharmaceutical companies are concerned that if they sell RU486 their other products will be boycotted by Catholic hospitals; clinics, family planning organizations and other groups should counter with the promise to purchase substantially from the company that provides the drug.

RU486 is not the answer for everyone, especially for women who do not discover they are pregnant until its rather narrow window of opportunity has passed. But it should be available for the many who could use it. No one much likes abortion, but surely reasonable people can agree that earlier is better.

Third-World countries, in which thousands upon thousands of women still die every year from illegal abortions, need this drug even more than we do. But America has always prided itself on leading the way in medical methods. Yet the best method of early abortion for many American women is a pill they have never even seen. The boycott threats have given corporate types the shivers. Perhaps a girlcott pledge would give them courage.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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