Approval of RU-486 wouldn't rest debate Abortion drug moves closer to FDA review

January 31, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

This is the year, its proponents hope, that the French abortion drug RU-486 will be approved for the American market.

Within weeks, they plan to send the results of clinical trials -- the experiences of 2,100 women from 17 clinics around the nation -- to the Food and Drug Administration, where Commissioner David A. Kessler has promised a "thorough and prompt review."

Approval could come within a year of the application.

Approving RU-486 for prescription would mean that women could end their pregnancies at home instead of in clinics.

It would mean privacy for women who sometimes encounter protesters at medical centers.

It might mean more doctors would be willing to perform abortions if they could prescribe pills instead of performing surgery.

It would not end the debate.

Anti-abortion groups disapprove of RU-486 as strongly as they do surgical abortions and say they will continue to oppose its marketing in this country.

"This isn't a drug to improve the health of women," said Michele Arocha Allen, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee. "This is a drug to kill an unborn child."

Anti-abortion groups have been boycotting U.S. subsidiaries of the company that produces RU-486 in Europe.

But while the groups have focused on this drug, some doctors have been testing combinations of other prescription medications to induce abortion.

RU-486, considered cutting edge not many years ago, seems to be just one possibility for women who are seeking an alternative to surgical abortion.

Many women will still prefer a visit to a clinic, where the procedure can take as little as five minutes. But women in the clinical trials of RU-486, which ended late last summer, said they liked having the choice of a medical abortion.

"It's a good drug," said Dr. Suzanne Poppema, medical director and owner of Aurora Medical Services in Seattle, one of the trial sites. "It's going to do tremendous things for empowering women and improving access to abortion care."

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, in a study released last fall, reported that a third of obstetrician/gynecologists who do not perform surgical abortions said they would be likely to prescribe RU-486, formally known as mifepristone, if it is approved. Abortion-rights activists say that would be especially important in areas where there are few abortion clinics.

'Can't find enough doctors'

But Ms. Arocha Allen, of the Right to Life Committee, doubts that many more doctors will be providing abortions should RU-486 be approved.

"The main problem for the pro-abortion movement is that they can't find enough doctors who want to do them," she said. "There are some doctors out there who support legalized abortion but don't want to be the one themselves actually killing a child," either surgically or with tablets, Ms. Arocha Allen said.

The RU-486 trials were sponsored by the Population Council, a nonprofit contraceptive research organization. The council is compiling statistics from the tests to send to the FDA with the formal application for approval.

Staff members at clinics that participated in the trials say they found the drug generally worked well, although a small percentage of women had to return for surgical abortions after

RU-486 did not cause a miscarriage.

'Felt more in control'

Doctors involved in the trials also say the drug left many women feeling they were ending a pregnancy by a more natural method.

"They felt more in control," said Dr. Lynn Borgatta, medical director of Planned Parenthood of Westchester and Rockland counties in New York. "They said they felt it wasn't something that was done to them; it's something they chose to do. They'd say, 'I did it.' Those were the words they used."

Sue Ferden of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa said that many women will continue to choose surgical abortions.

"But many women saw this as a more natural way. They even used this [time waiting for the drugs to work] as a part of the grieving process," she said.

In Seattle, Dr. Poppema heard similar reactions:

"To a woman, they said, 'This was so much more natural. I felt so empowered.' The women who were in this study said they felt proud that something good would come out of this sad thing."

Even patients who reported the drugs caused more pain and bleeding than they had expected said after the abortion that they would recommend RU-486 to other women, Dr. Poppema said.

A surgical abortion, usually not done until a woman is six to eight weeks' pregnant, can take as little as three to five minutes, said Dr. Borgatta, a surgeon.

A medical abortion is an induced miscarriage and takes far longer. The drugs can be used as soon as a woman discovers she is pregnant.

The tests included only women who were no more than eight weeks' pregnant.

Two medications

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