Cancer treatment stymied by politics, feminist says

At news conference, she calls on U.S. to OK use of abortion pill

April 02, 2000|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

The drug mifepristone, widely known as the abortion pill, has been found to be effective in treating certain types of cancer, including fast-growing brain tumors, but its approval for use in this country has been stalled by highly charged abortion politics, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said yesterday.

"It is outrageous," said Smeal, at a news conference during Feminist Expo 2000 at the Baltimore Convention Center. "Medical research has been held up not only in the United States but for the world because of abortion politics."

Mifepristone, also known as RU 486, works by cutting off the food supply to tumors that feed on progestin. That same action, the cessation of progestin, terminates a pregnancy in the first few weeks after fertilization.

Seven years ago, President Clinton issued an executive order instructing the Food and Drug Administration to move forward on the drug. Four years ago, the FDA ruled the drug safe and effective but asked for more information on its manufacture and labeling. In February of this year, the FDA delayed approval again, saying it had more questions.

In the meantime, mifepristone is manufactured in France and brought into this country in severely limited amounts under the auspices of the Feminist Majority Foundation for use by about 40 patients whose physicians are aware of its effectiveness in treating cancer.

The FDA allows drugs to be supplied for "compassionate use," on a patient-by-patient basis as the last alternative in the treatment of a life-threatening disease.

Smeal said she knows her outspoken call for FDA approval will create a patient demand for the drug that cannot now be filled, but she is hopeful that demand will provoke the federal government to act.

"They told us that if we be quiet, it will be approved," said Smeal. "Well, that has been going on for years and years. It is enough."

Smeal said the National Right to Life Committee as well as congressional abortion opponents are holding up the drug's approval. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has said he would overrule any FDA approval of the drug.

Appearing at the news conference yesterday was Florida A&M humanities Professor Doris Laird, who has been taking the drug, one pill a day, for seven years. Her physician, Dr. Nettleton Payne of Atlanta, said mifepristone has stopped the growth of meningioma, a tumor in the center of her brain. It is a virulent cancer that returned after three surgeries and radiation treatments and is located dangerously near Laird's optic nerves.

"This drug is saving both my sight and my life," said Laird, who found out about it only by accident. She said she continues to teach full time and has noticed no side effects from the drug.

Dr. Eric Schaff of the University of Rochester has been using the drug in limited cases since 1996 to shrink painful uterine fibroid tumors in women, the leading cause of hysterectomies.

He said the drug also has potential uses in the treatment of prostate cancer, certain breast cancers, endometrial and ovarian cancer and the spread of human immunodeficiency virus.

"We should be fighting a war against cancer," said Smeal. "Not holding this drug hostage."

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