Government officials, scientists and women’s rights organizations reacted bitterly Thursday to the decision by a French pharmaceutical company to halt distribution of an abortion pill under pressure from right-to-life movements, mainly in the United States.
At the same time, an executive of the firm that manufactures the pill raised the possibility that it will be put back on the market if the ethical debate over its use subsides.
“Once again it is the women who are struck with the backlash,” said Michele Andre, the official who deals with women’s rights in the Socialist government of Premier Michel Rocard. She criticized the manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf, for giving in to pressure from anti-abortion groups.
Dr. Etienne-Emile Baulieu, one of the French scientists who in 1982 announced the development of the pill, said the decision was a “surrender to intolerance.” Baulieu was in Rio de Janeiro attending a world congress of specialists in gynecology and obstetrics. The congress is expected to be asked to condemn the suspension of the pill, which is called RU-486 and is made with a substance called mifepristone that works against the female hormone progesterone by blocking the implantation of the fertilized egg on the wall of the uterus.
Baulieu said in an interview with the Paris newspaper Le Monde that the laboratory’s decision, “coming only a month after the government had given it a green light, was inexplicable and morally scandalous.”
On Sept. 23, the French government, after a review by government ethics committees, approved the use of the pill under strict medical supervision. In two months of testing, the pill had been administered to 4,000 women in 150 clinics and registered a success rate of 95.5%, Baulieu said.
Hailed by Women’s Groups
RU-486, the world’s first abortion pill, has been hailed by women’s organizations as a reliable and safe alternative to surgical abortion. Baulieu and other French supporters of it contend that the pressure against the pill came mainly from U.S. groups.
“I once had to be accompanied by a bodyguard in the United States because of threats,” Baulieu said, “but I noticed in the recent election campaigns in France that no one even raised the abortion issue, which signified that it had been socially accepted in France.”
But there were vigorous protests in France as well as abroad, particularly in the United States, and threats of boycotts against Roussel Uclaf and its parent company, the West German chemical group Hoechst. Many here see this as the reason for the decision to halt distribution. The pill had been ordered for use by the governments of China, Britain and Spain, among others, officials said.
An official of the Ministry of Health, who asked not to be further identified, said: “In France, anyway, the protests were pretty weak and did not lead to very strong feelings. The company acted to preserve its image abroad.”
A Roussel Uclaf vice president, Pierre Joly, said the company will consider reintroducing the pill if the pressure against it subsides.
“We would restart distribution of RU-486 if the climate once again became serene,” he said.
Joly said the decision to withdraw the pill was “not taken from an economic point of view.”
“We decided more than five years ago that we didn’t want to make money on RU-486,” he said. “We decided to sell it at cost.”
He said the drug company made the decision because it did not want “to be the target of activists--even if the activist is a respectable one.”
“We believed that after the French government approved the product, everybody would be influenced by that decision and we could forget the problem,” Joly said. “But that was not true. The trend, the threats kept increasing.”
Meanwhile, one of the more militant French groups against the pill, the Committee to Save Unborn Children, called for “destruction of all stocks of this chemical weapon RU-486.”