RU-486: Whose Property?

By Campbell, Courtney S. | The Hastings Center Report, January-February 1989 | Go to article overview

RU-486: Whose Property?


Campbell, Courtney S., The Hastings Center Report


RU-486: Whose Property?

As the politics of abortion in this country become increasingly confrontational and even violent, some interested parties are looking to a technological solution to the debate over the legality of abortion. Both condemnation and hope have attended the recent approval by the French government of RU-486, a pill that if taken within the first five weeks of pregnancy, blocks the action of progesterone and causes the uterine lining to slough off, expelling the embryo. The potential implications of RU-486 for the law on abortion seem clear to many. As columnist William Safire has observed, with value-laden imagery, "The development of an abortion pill will remove law and its enforcement from the debate...In early pregnancy, the abortion option will become as easily available as a handgun." (New York Times, 29 September 1988, A27). And Ellen Goodman sees the potential mass marketing of RU-486 as "the last major battle over reproductive rights...RU-486 and its look-alike drugs make abortion as private as a prescription pad, as personal as swallowing a pill." Indeed, Goodman suggests the availability of the abortion pill may succeed in doing what picketing and violent protests have not: close down abortion clinics.

This, of course, is hardly the sort of solution envisioned by critics of abortion choice, and one response has come in the form of a threatened boycott by the National Right to Life Committee of products made by any U.S. firm that announces plans to market RU-486. Indeed, pressure from pro-life groups in France and abroad met with some initial success: The drug's manufacturer, Groupe Roussel Uclaf referred to a "polemic incited" by such advocacy groups as the decisive consideration in its decision in late October to suspend distribution of RU-486. This decision was immediately overruled by the French government, which mandated a resumption of production on the grounds that governmental approval for marketing meant that "RU 486 became the moral property of women."

Noting that Roussel has contracted with the WHO to distribute the pill at low cost in developing countries, Richard Glasow, education director of the NRLC, indicates some discussion has been given to an international boycott directed by pro-life groups. However, the boycott may ultimately be unnecessary: Glasow maintains that the short and long-term health effects of RU-486 on "unborn babies, children and women are analogous to those of thalidomide and DES" and expects that further research will establish that "the pill is so dangerous to women that it will be eventually taken off the market. …

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