Politics and the Pill

The French government has acted responsibly with its order that production of the new abortion pill continue. It is a decision in the interests of public health.

The issue in this particular case is not the appropriateness of abortion. The legality of abortion has been widely upheld in the nations of the world, in France itself since 1974. The issue is whether to permit the use of a safer but also more accessible means of abortion--namely mifepristone, or RU-486.

Once again those who are opposed to abortion had ignored the laws that permit the interruption of a pregnancy and had resorted to threats and coercion to attempt to keep the new drug from the marketplace. That sort of intimidation, which is being repeated in the United States with demonstrations at clinics where abortion is available, is unacceptable and must be resisted to the limits of the law. That is what the government of France has done.

The initial decision by Roussl Uclaf to halt production and withdraw RU-486 from the marketplace had drawn sharp criticism from public-health officials, including officials of the World Health Organization and the World Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics. The inventor of the new pill, Dr. Etienne Baulieu of France, had characterized the action as "morally scandalous." So it was. It was a submission to coercion that would have denied those seeking an abortion the use of what appears to be a far safer procedure than the present reliance on surgery, and a method that could be more readily made available where medical facilities are limited.

There remains the risk of abuse. It is easy to understand the apprehension of those opposed to abortion regarding a pill that can replace the more complex procedures of a clinic. In effect, abortion becomes as accessible as the nearest pharmacy. But the response of the foes of abortion should be persuasion and education, not the threat of violence. In the absence of sexual abstinence, the most effective alternative to abortion is contraception. It would be a mistake, we think, if the availability of the new abortion pill should serve to diminish efforts to make contraceptives available globally.

For now, only two nations, France and China, have approved distribution of the abortion pill. The decision of the French government to stand firm may help other governments make their decisions on the basis of medical efficacy, not the politics of the abortion debate.

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