RU-486 Comes to America

May 18, 1994

Constancy of purpose has not been a strength of the Clinton presidency. But the administration deserves great credit for the patient and persistent negotiations that led to the announcement this week of an agreement to make the French pill RU-486 available in this country. RU-486 has become known as the "abortion pill" because it can end a pregnancy within seven weeks of conception without a surgical procedure.

Roussel Uclaf, the French firm that makes the drug, has shown no interest in marketing the drug in the U.S., largely because of threat from abortion opponents to boycott the firm's other products. The new agreement sidesteps this problem by handing over U.S. patent rights to the Population Council, a nonprofit contraceptive research organization based in New York. Beginning this fall, the council will supervise clinical trials in several U.S. cities, possibly including Baltimore. It will also begin the process of choosing a company to produce and market the drug once it receives approval from the Food and Drug Administration. That process is likely to take about two years.

RU-486 is a revolutionary drug, in part because of its political ramifications. If ending a pregnancy is a matter of taking a couple of pills and a visit or two to a doctor's office, it could become much more difficult for abortion opponents to target abortion clinics successfully. Even so, the pill is no panacea; neither is it painless. The process can take several days, during which a woman needs to be near a hospital or doctor in case of complications. It does, however, offer another choice to women who find themselves unable to carry through with a pregnancy. It shows promise for other uses as well, such as treatment for some forms of cancer.

The Clinton administration has made clear its stand on abortion -- that termination of a pregnancy should be safe, legal and rare. Making RU-486 available to American women is part of that policy; it also reverses the unwise policy of allowing a drug to be held hostage for political reasons. The new agreement should give courage to other pharmaceutical companies who have curtailed research and marketing efforts on drugs dealing with human reproduction. If American women had more and better contraceptive choices, fewer of them would need abortions in whatever form they take.

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