Health Minister Claude Evin on Friday ordered a French pharmaceutical company to resume distribution of an abortion pill that the company had withdrawn from the market two days earlier under pressure from anti-abortion forces.
A Ministry of Health statement said that Evin, citing a 1975 law giving French women the right to voluntary abortion, had acted “with the interests of public health in mind.”
The statement added that Roussel-Uclaf, the firm that produces the pill, had agreed to resume distribution.
Intervention by the French government, which sources said was approved by Premier Michel Rocard, has important implications outside France.
Several overpopulated countries, including China and India, have ordered the pill, designated RU-486, for use in their birth control programs. Family planning organizations say it will allow millions of women to terminate unwanted pregnancies without resorting to surgery.
The French government, by officially ordering production resumed, may absorb some of the pressure from anti-abortion organizations, particularly in the United States, on Roussel-Uclaf and its West German parent firm, Hoechst.
When Roussel-Uclaf announced Wednesday that the pill was being withdrawn, it cited an “outcry of public opinion at home and abroad.” The French government had approved the pill only a month earlier.
Roussel-Uclaf confirmed that it had “agreed to reverse its decision and resume distribution of RU 486,” which is made of 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.
Pierre Joly, a vice president of the firm, said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde that the government decision had come as a relief.
“We are relieved of the moral burden weighing on our group,” he was quoted as saying. “For us the problem is now solved.”
Health Minister Evin said after meeting Friday with Roussel-Uclaf officials that the pressure from anti-abortion organizations had included threats of violence.
“Their children and their wives were threatened through anonymous letters,” he said. “This is totally inadmissible and utterly cowardly.”
He said the pill had been approved only after extensive review that included deliberations by a committee on ethics.
“From the moment government approval for the drug was granted,” he said in a television interview, “RU-486 became the property of women, not just the drug company.”
The government’s order to go ahead with distribution was welcomed by the pill’s supporters.
A leading French specialist in newborn babies, Dr. Alexandre Minkowski, said, “I heartily applaud the minister of health for his courageous decision in the face of this important problem.”
Prof. Etienne-Emile Baulieu, one of the scientists who developed the pill, said Friday’s decision was “a good reaction in the face of demonstrations of intolerance that constituted a grave precedent.”
Baulieu, who is in Rio de Janeiro for a world conference of gynecologists, said the pill offers “immense hope” for Third World countries. In Brazil alone, he said, “there are 3 million abortions each year, all illegal, and tens of thousands of women die or are mutilated for life.”
But Jean-Michel DiFalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Bishops, said he was disappointed.
“It is a surprise to see the government, in the name of public health, intervene directly in the business of a private company,” DiFalco said.
Albert Decourtray, the archbishop of Lyons, called the order a “victory for wild liberalism.”
“Some people want to make this a religious fight,” he said. “It is a fight for life.”