Watch CBSN Live

The Abortion Pill

The Food and Drug Administration may have given the go-ahead to RU-486, the so-called French Abortion Pill, but experts say the new pill may not necessarily be easy for women to obtain. CBS Correspondent Martha Teichner has the details about the small white pill scheduled for release in the United States within a couple of weeks.

"Yes, this pill will be available to you," assures Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood.

Some experts, however, are not so sure because of the fear many doctors have about being associated with abortions. Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida was killed in 1993 because he performed abortions. So was Dr. John Britton, also of Pensacola, a year later. Because of the violent incidents, many doctors haven't wanted to be identified as an abortion provider.

"The truth is that doctors in this country are petrified about doing abortions," says Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which exists to preserve the Roe v. Wade ruling. The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalized abortion.

Benshoof, however, thinks FDA approval of the abortion pill will change nothing. "It is not going to increase access to abortions," she says. "More providers are not going to come into the field and offer healthcare to women who have not given abortions previously."

The climate of fear about anti-abortion violence has even forced Danco, the company formed to distribute RU-486 in the US, to refrain from disclosing its location.

The Political Debate

Dozens of states have passed laws restricting abortion. Many of the regulations involve criminal penalties.

"The battle for Roe has never been more acute, never been more critical since 1973, and RU-486 is just a piece of that," says Benshoof, who adds that the abortion pill could be used by the opposition when they see fit.

Already, a House Commerce Committee has sent the FDA a letter, demanding an explanation for the alleged irregularities at a plant in China where the abortion pill is made.

The manufacturer of a drug administered along with the abortion pill also got involved in the controversy. Searle sent a scary-sounding warning to doctors describing known and unknown risks to women if their medication is used for anything other than its original purpose--to treat ulcers.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) replied to the warning, calling it misleading. ACOG reaffirmed its support of the drug for use in abortions.

Even the presidential candidates have joined the fray. In one of the national debates, they discussed the FDA's approval of RU-486.

"I was disappointed in the ruling... because I think that abortions ought to be more rare in America," said George W. Bush, the Republican candidate. "And I'm worried that that pill will create more abortion [and] will ause more people to have abortions."

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, on the other hand, says he supports the FDA's decision. "They determined it was medically safe for the women who use that drug," he said.

Experts say who wins the presidential election and which party will ultimately control Congress could have a profound effect on the judicial and legislative landscape faced by both sides of the abortion battle.

The elections "may very well have an impact on what happens with RU-486 in the future," says Laura Echevarria of the National Right to Life Committee. "A new FDA commissioner will be appointed. If the drug is deemed to be dangerous, the FDA may review RU-486 and its application... Certainly that looks like that's a possibility already."

Former President George Bush banned the importation of the abortion pill during his term, yet President Bill Clinton made un-banning it a priority. Clinton's action allowed for US clinical trials to begin.


From the Woman's Perspective

The abortion pill is expected to be available to select abortion clinics within the next few weeks. The drug's pending arrival is expected to be met with as much controversy as its approval.

"Regardless of whatever stage in pregnancy that child is in, that child is a child," says Echevarria. "And that child is unique, a unique individual who will never exist again."

"Is it a child? Yes. Is it a choice? Absolutely. And is it my body? Absolutely," says Lee Knowlen, one of the participants of the US study on the safety of the abortion pill.

Knowlen, however, is not her real name. As a single 34-year-old woman at the time she entered the study, she couldn't face pregnancy. Her housemate was dying, she had just lost her job, and she once had a surgical abortion and didn't want to do it again. So she signed up for the clinical trials for the abortion pill.

"I will always remember with these pills in my hand and that moment before I took them," says Knowlen. "It's probably one of the most deliberate things I think I've ever done in my life... Even though it's still sad for me, I know I did the right thing---as hard as it was."

Another woman who participated in the clinical trials says the abortion pill worked for her, but she preferred to remain anonymous.

"Terminating a pregnancy is never a good thing in itself," says the married, mother of two. "Once I decided to do it, I had a very good experience with the medication."

Critics, however, continue to warn women that the abortion pill is not safe.

"We do feel the drug is very dangerous for American women and very likely somewhere along the way, a woman will suffer from severe health consequences or possibly die from the use of RU-486," says Echevarria. "It's not an easy abortion process. There 's a great deal of nausea. Many women suffer fronausea, vomiting, very painful contractions."

It's important to be realistic and not try to "conjure up fake threats of medical consequences," says Richard Hausknecht, the medical director of the company that will distribute the abortion pill in the US and a professor at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York. "It's all politics. It's not medical care... and this decision was made based on the medical evidence, not on politics."

The Basics

The American version of RU-486 will be called Mifepristone or by its brand name, Mifeprex. It can only be used in the first 49 days of pregnancy.

Patients who are prescribed the drug will be instructed to take three Mifeprex tablets in the doctor's office or clinic. The pills cause the embryo to be aborted. Then, two days later, patients take two more pills of a drug called Misoprostol, which causes contractions to expel the embryo.

Medical professionals say the process is effective 95% of the time. When it isn't, a woman must follow up with a surgical abortion.

In France, more than half a million women have used the abortion pill since it was approved there in 1988. The drug now accounts for nearly a third of French abortions, but the total number of abortions reportedly hasn't gone up.

The FDA spent four years reviewing clinical data on RU-486 before approving it for use in the US a month ago.
©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue