According to a new study, doctors used pills such as RU-486 to perform about 6 percent of abortions in the first several months after the controversial drug was approved in the United States.
The study, to be published Wednesday by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, is one of the first to account for the number of abortions using mifepristone, or RU-486, since it became available in 2000. The study estimates that more than 37,000 abortions were performed using pills in the first six months of 2001.
The researchers noted the U.S. abortion rate continued to fall to its lowest rate since the 1970s - 21.3 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. The number of providers who performed surgical abortions also fell.
"The growing acceptance of mifepristone raises the possibility that the decrease in surgical abortion providers may be offset by an increase in the number of providers that offer medical abortion," wrote the study's authors, Lawrence Finer and Stanley Henshaw.
The Food and Drug Administration approved RU-486 for use in the United States in September 2000.
Wayne Shields, president of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, said RU-486 is still underrepresented as an option for first-trimester abortions.
The drug can be used up to seven weeks after the beginning of a woman's last menstrual period. Providers also use a drug called methotrexate to perform abortions. Methotrexate is used primarily to treat cancer and rheumatic diseases.
The research appears in the January/February issue of the Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health journal. The Guttmacher Institute receives some funding from Planned Parenthood, but its abortion statistics are generally regarded by abortion opponents and supporters as accurate and comprehensive.
By Amy Westfeldt