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The Effect Is to Deny Medical Science a Tool : Ban on testing of the French abortion pill is absurd

Washington’s effective ban on imports of a French-made steroid that can induce abortions is wrong. That’s one issue.

But there’s another issue. That’s banning imports for the purpose of further testing the drug RU-486--which shows great promise for treatment of some forms of cancer and other serious disorders. That’s worse than wrong; it is heinous.

In one preliminary test, for example, RU-486--also known as mifepristone--reduced tumors in one of every five patients with advanced breast cancer that had not responded to such treatment as chemotherapy.

THE BARRIERS: Yet politically motivated federal efforts to keep the drug out of this country are stalling research that could save countless lives. The presidential oath may be silent on curing disease, but the silence does not sanction interference with the responsibility of doctors under the Hippocratic oath.

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President Bush should order the federal Food and Drug Administration to sweep away any rulings that can even be interpreted as barriers to imports of the drug for research. Secretary Louis Sullivan’s Department of Health and Human Services should use its influence to persuade the drug’s European manufacturers that threats of retaliation by anti-abortion activists are not sufficient reason to continue to curtail exports to the United States.

The drug is manufactured by Roussel-Uclaf of France, a German-owned pharmaceutical firm. It has been used without adverse effects by 65,000 women in France as an alternative to surgical abortion. Britain, Sweden and even the Soviet Union are either on the verge of approving use of RU-486, are using it in tests or are about to start tests.

The vision that anti-abortion activists portray of abortion pills on every drugstore shelf is not even valid in France. It is a prescription drug that can be taken only in a clinic under medical supervision. Each pill is registered and must be accounted for. There is no reason to suppose that Roussel-Uclaf would make pills for export without similar restrictions.

But in 1989, in an obvious attempt to appease the anti-abortion movement, the FDA put RU-486 on a short list of “import alert” drugs that cannot be brought into the country for personal use. Technically, researchers could apply for a license to import the drug for testing, but the alert has had such a chilling effect that no applications have been submitted since it was posted.

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THE CONSEQUENCES: The agency can argue, perhaps even brag, that its action is stopping abortions. But is it not also prompting some women to use other methods that are clearly more life-threatening than the professed concerns about profuse bleeding that the FDA used to justify the alert?

Look at the list of other uses for RU-486 that the agency is blocking. Federal regulatory recalcitrance means, as we have noted, no tests of the drug on advanced breast cancers. The drug has also been effective in treatment of inoperable cases of meningioma, a non-malignant brain tumor, but that cannot even be tested in the United States. It shows promise as a drug for high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, even AIDS.

As Dr. William Regelson noted in an August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.: “It is tragic that in this country 43,000 victims die of breast cancer each year, while abject surrender to abortion politics delays clinical studies that might help them.”

Doctors and patients alike have a right to use RU-486 both as a safe alternative to surgical abortions and to explore its healing potential.

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The FDA is a partner in medicine, certifying scientists’ claims for their new drugs. As such, it shares the responsibility of physicians to provide help. In this case, the agency is hiding, not providing, and the White House must set it straight.


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