A pharmaceutical company that manufactures abortion pills reversed itself Friday and agreed to resume distribution of the controversial drug, heeding a government demand.
The company, Roussel Uclaf, announced its decision after Health Minister Claude Evin said the pills should be made available in the interest of public health.
The firm, partly owned by the French government, said it had no choice but to comply with Evin’s wishes.
The firm announced Wednesday that it was pulling RU 486, also known as Mifepristone, off the market because of an “outcry of public opinion at home and abroad,” and a threatened boycott of its products.
Evin met with executives of the company Friday. Then he issued a statement saying that France’s 1975 law legalizing abortions must be respected.
“The drug RU 486 is an advance because it does not involve use of an anesthetic. The precautionary measures to be taken in administering this drug, exclusively in approved health clinics, provides indispensable safeguards to women’s health,” the minister’s statement said.
Roussel Uclaf is part of the giant West German chemical group Hoescht, which holds the majority share. The French government has a 36% share.
The government certified the pill for use under medical supervision Sept. 23.
Since then, 4,000 women in France have used it with a success rate of 95.5%, according to the drug’s inventor, Etienne Emile Baulieu.
In a written statement issued late Friday, the company said it “ac cepted the (government’s) order and would rescind its earlier decision and would resume distributing RU 486 in approved health centers.”
Roussel Uclaf repeated that “no medical reason” had prompted its decision to withdraw the drug from distribution.
Baulieu, at a medical conference in Rio de Janeiro, was quoted as saying he was “very pleased” with the decision to resume distribution. He attributed it to “government pressure on right-wing groups,” according to the press office at the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics.
Hope for Third World
Baulieu said the pill represented “immense hope” for Third World countries.
“It is a question of human misery, of life and death. It was not possible to keep such an important advance in the drawer just because certain pressure groups were against its distribution,” he said.
In Washington, Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, applauded the government’s action.
“The French government has taken a strong stand against intolerance and in favor of the health of women. We support this action and the message it sends to those who seek to impose their will on all of us,” she said.
Groups Welcomed Decision
Anti-abortion groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, had welcomed the company’s decision to suspend distribution.
Cardinal Albert Decourtray, president of the French Bishops Conference, said Friday he was “astonished that the government intervened in such an authoritarian manner.” The cardinal denied that the church had pressured the company to halt distribution.
Thousands of doctors attending the Rio conference had called on Roussel Uclaf to continue making the abortion pill or pass the patent on to another manufacturer.
Health Ministry officials maintained that the company acted to protect its image abroad when it halted distribution. Company officials said they had been inundated with mail from opponents to the drug in France and abroad, especially the United States.
They said many letters threatened to boycott company products.
Andre Ulmann, a Roussel Uclaf official who helped develop the pill, told reporters at the Rio conference that a boycott would have cost the company substantial sums of money, “so we decided to stop making the drug.”
The pill works by blocking the action of progesterone, a hormone essential to all stages of pregnancy. Researchers say it is effective in the first seven weeks of pregnancy, particularly when used in conjunction with a second product called Sulprotone, or prostaglandin E.
They said the drug was not a do-it-yourself, morning-after-pill that could be purchased over the counter and taken at home. Its use requires medical supervision. It also has been tested for use in China and India.
Evin said it was difficult to know who exactly was responsible for the unsigned threatening letters received by Roussel Uclaf.