French Drug Firm Bows to Protest, Halts Abortion Pill

Times Staff Writer

Protests and boycott threats by anti-abortion groups have forced a French drug company to suspend distribution of the world’s first abortion pill, only a month after it was approved for use by the French government, the company announced Wednesday.

The drug, mifepristone RU-486, had been heralded by family planning and population control organizations as a breakthrough in birth control that allowed women to interrupt unwanted pregnancies without resorting to surgical or suction-method abortions.

China, Spain, Britain and the Scandinavian countries already had contracted with the French manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf, for supplies of the pill, which was approved for limited distribution Sept. 23.

But on Wednesday, Roussel Uclaf, a subsidiary of the giant West German chemical group Hoechst, released a brief statement announcing the suspension of distribution in the face of vigorous protests and threats of boycott, particularly in the United States.


“Faced with the emotional response from parts of French and foreign public opinion provoked by the possibility of using RU-486 for aborting pregnancies, the Roussel Uclaf group has decided to suspend immediately its availability . . . in France and abroad,” the statement said.

The company said its officials had faced an anti-abortion demonstration at their recent board meeting and had received thousands of letters protesting the manufacture of the pill, which works against the female hormone progesterone by blocking the implantation of the fertilized egg on the uterine wall.

The pill’s creator, French scientist Jean-Michel Alexandre, claimed that the pill had a 95% success rate.

According to the manufacturers, the pill alone was only 80% effective. It was to be accompanied by a second product as part of the standard procedure to reach that 95% effectiveness rate.


Company spokesmen did not rule out the possibility that distribution could be restarted at a later date or that rights to the product could be sold to another manufacturer.

Chemical Warfare Alleged

In Washington, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, Dr. John C. Willke, said he is satisfied with the decision to withdraw the drug, which he called “chemical warfare on the unborn.”

“I’m very pleased,” Willke said. “It demonstrates the depth and commitment of the opposition to abortion worldwide. It will save a lot of babies’ lives.”

At the same time, Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said of the decision: “The pharmaceutical company buckled to the political pressure exerted by a small but vocal anti-family planning minority, with total disregard for the health benefits this drug could have had for millions of women worldwide.”

Chief among the French abortion opponents is the Roman Catholic Church, which attacked the pill when its limited distribution was approved by the Health Ministry.

In praising the decision by the drug firm to withdraw the abortion pill from the market, French Archbishop Albert Decourtray, head of the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops, was careful not to endorse the tactics of anti-abortion demonstrators.

“I hope the withdrawal was due to moral considerations and not to other reasons stemming from passion or violence,” Decourtray said.


Earlier, in a speech to the bishops, Decourtray had criticized the drug as a “serious threat, a new step in the everyday acceptance of abortion.”

Despite the church’s strong objections, the use of contraceptives is widespread among French women. A recent government survey revealed that only 2% of French women did not use some form of contraceptive.