About RU486, the chemical abortion drug

(Copyright 1988 The New York Times)




 NEW YORK -- While a new abortion-inducing drug is expected to be sold
in France, China, England and other countries, opponents of abortion
are blocking sale of the drug in the United States.
 The fate of the drug, RU 486, which has a potential for other medical
conditions, mostly affecting women, is focusing new attention on the
influence of the anti-abortion movement on medical decisions.
 National Right to Life and other groups opposed to abortion have
served notice to drug companies that if any company sold an
abortion-inducing drug the millions of Americans who oppose abortion
will boycott all the company's products. This happened to the Upjohn
Co. of Kalamazoo, Mich., when it tried to develop abortion-inducing
drugs several years ago.
 Pharmaceutical companies say they have no plans to seek the Food and
Drug Administration approval that is necessary to sell
abortion-inducing drugs in the United States. They say publicly that
they are not cowed by the anti-abortion movement and that they had
other reasons for not selling such drugs. Privately, however, drug
makers speak differently.
 ``The reasons are obvious,'' said one company executive who asked not
to be named. He said his company feared that if it sold such a drug,
it would suffer greatly from a boycott by the millions of members of
National Right to Life and by ``all the physicians, pharmacists and
lay people who don't believe in abortions.''
 ``We don't want to get into it,'' he said.
 Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Somerville, N.J., holds the
option rights to apply for government approval to market RU 486 in the
United States, but it has declined to do so.
 ``We're not in that business,'' said Dr. Victor J. Bauer, executive
vice president. Hoechst-Roussel is part of the Hoescht Celanese Corp.,
a wholly owned subsidiary of Hoechst AG of West Germany. Hoescht
Celanese makes chemicals, fibers, plastics and printing materials as
well as a variety of drugs and, according to Standard & Poor's
Register of Corporations, has annual sales of $1.7 billion.
 Sterling Drug Inc., which is testing a similar drug in Europe, says
it, too, had no plans to sell its drug in the United States.
 In combination with an existing drug, prostaglandins, RU 486 is safer
than surgical abortion early in pregnancy and is so effective that
experts predict that where it is available it may nearly replace
surgical abortion in the first trimester.
 The drug is expected to be approved for sale in France and China in
March, with marketing expected within a year in other countries,
including Sweden, the Netherlands and England.
 Experts said RU 486 or a similar drug might eventually enter the
United States under another guise. Researchers are studying it for
widening the opening of the birth canal, which may enable many women
to avoid Caesarian births, and treating some forms of breast cancer
and endometriosis, a leading cause of infertility.
 Once a drug receives federal approval for marketing for any purpose,
physicians can prescribe it to patients at their discretion.
 But Dr. Richard Glasow, who is education director of National Right
to Life in Washington, said his group would not be fooled.  National
Right to Life, with 2,000 local chapters, would still organize a vast
boycott unless the drug was the only one available to treat a
life-threatening condition, Glasow said.
 ``Our basic position is that death drugs designed to kill unborn
babies have no place in America,'' he said.
 The power of anti-abortion groups ``is very upsetting,'' said Dr.
Irving Spitz, director of clinical research at the Population Council
in New York City. Dr. Daniel Mishell, professor and chairman of
obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California
School of Medicine, said he thought it was ``medically wrong'' that RU
486 would not be available to American women.
 Mishell has just completed a three-year study of RU 486, paid for by
the Population Council, which is a private group. By law, federal
funds cannot be used to support research on abortion, and Mishell's
study is the only American study of the drug.
 Spitz said, ``Because of the possible political backlash, we have
kept a low profile,'' adding: ``We have not really encouraged studies
in this country. We feel that our hands are tied. It's a question of
political realities.''
 Experts said that if women in the United States did start using the
two-drug combination, RU 486 and prostaglandins, the whole abortion
picture would change. Because the vast majority of abortions are
performed in the first trimester of pregnancy, abortion clinics could
be put out of business.
 Having an abortion could mean obtaining and filling a prescription,
not undergoing surgery. According to Dr. Jose Barzelatto, director of
the World Health Organization's human reproduction program, the cost
would be less, though it is not clear yet how much less, than surgical
 ``Abortions would become private,'' said Mishell. ``It definitely
would be easier to have an abortion.''