THE 1950s are back. Except instead of dying from hemorrhaging or infection after illegal abortions, women are dying from hemorrhaging or infection after legal ones.
A California teen-ager died last month after self-administering the self-administered abortion pill RU-486, making her the seventh American casualty and third American death related to usage of the pill since its much-celebrated approval by the FDA three years ago.
Holly Patterson was a 30-second story on the 11 o'clock news Sept. 19 with NBC's New York affiliate reporting the drug's role as something the family "believes" caused Ms. Patterson's death two days earlier. Her father, Monty Patterson, was actually too politically timid to blame the abortion-inducing pill for his daughter's death, saying only that he wished his daughter and her boyfriend had received more information from counselors and doctors.
He also implored teen-aged girls everywhere, "No matter what, no matter how bad things are, talk with family and friends. Parents need to talk to their children, and children need to talk with their parents."
Precisely the kinds of things the pill is designed to get around.
Before the drug's approval, no major American pharmaceutical company wanted to come near RU-486. But after the small New York-based Danco Laboratories finally took the job, the abortion lobby pressured the FDA for speedy approval. Last year in Ms. Patterson's state, California, Gov. Gray Davis enacted a package of reproductive rights bills with a provision to allow nurses and midwives to prescribe abortion drugs, even if the doctor is on vacation.
Planned Parenthood extended its sympathies to the family and acknowledged that a client who had recently sought its services did die in a hospital Sept. 17, but that "the cause of death is unknown at this time" since the coroner's office was still awaiting autopsy results.
Meaning that we can't be sure whether it was the drug or old age that killed the 18-year-old Ms. Patterson.
She went home early Sept. 13 from her job at Macy's feeling sick but claiming bad cramps were responsible. The cramping and bleeding became more severe, and the next night her boyfriend took her to the emergency room, which sent her home with that pillar of Western medicine, painkillers. By Sept. 16, Ms. Patterson was unable to eat or walk. Mr. Patterson learned that his daughter was pregnant a few hours before she died the next day. An attending doctor told him that because parts of the fetus hadn't been aborted, there was massive infection and septic shock.
The Web site for Planned Parenthood states that no deaths have resulted from the RU-486 procedure, despite the FDA's and Danco's warnings to doctors last year that three women who took RU-486 bled from ruptured ectopic pregnancies, and one died. Two others developed bacterial infections that killed one of them. Another woman had a heart attack.
Not bad odds, according to the National Abortion Federation, which points out that vastly more women who carry babies to term die than do women who have abortions. Which is like saying that more people die from eating than from anorexia.
On a good day, RU-486 causes nausea, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding more profuse than in surgical abortions, nine to 30 days of cramping and a fetal expulsion that can happen unexpectedly at the grocery store. It's then to be scooped up by the bleeding woman and taken to her doctor so he can confirm that all the tissue exited or else perform a surgical abortion to prevent a fatal infection. Five percent to 8 percent of cases require surgery to stop the bleeding, and one woman in 500 requires a blood transfusion.
But hey, the French have been doing it for years.
"A great morning for American women," the National Organization of Women declared upon FDA approval of the drug. Abortion activists everywhere called it "a sweet victory."
Which makes one wonder what we can expect next from the women's movement. Wire hangers?
Julia Gorin is author of The Buddy Chronicles. She lives in New York.