A new debate over the abortion pill

After four deaths in California, the FDA will reconsider the drug next year.

Published November 23, 2005 6:11PM (EST)

The New York Times has an article today about a new controversy brewing over Mifeprex, or RU-486, the pill administered by physicians to provide nonsurgical abortion. After four women in California died within a week of using the drug, the FDA looked into what had happened and found that, beyond using the drug, they had one thing in common: They'd all been killed by a rare infection of Clostridium sordelli bacteria that flourished in each woman's uterus and then entered the bloodstream. As it's unclear how, exactly, the use of Mifeprex and the bacteria are linked -- and since this is a geographically isolated group of women -- the FDA is not calling to have the drug, which more than 500,000 American women have used since its approval in 2000, pulled from the market. Instead, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control will convene a meeting early next year to discuss what the Times calls a "medical mystery."

Of course, because this is a drug related to abortion, we can expect a heated debate -- not about how to make the drug safer, but whether it should be on the market at all. The Times notes that "a 1996 federal advisory committee that recommended the drug's approval met under intense security in a windowless building surrounded by federal marshals." And groups like Concerned Women for America are already calling for the drug to be pulled from the market. "I'm pleased that the FDA is taking a serious look at this," Wendy Wright, executive vice president of CWA told the Times, "and hope that they will no longer allow this drug to be available to cause the deaths of more women." However, Dr. Scott J. Spear, chairman of the national medical committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, also supported the FDA's decision to collect more information. "They're all in California, so is this a local issue?" Dr. Spear asked the Times. "I think it's dangerous to speculate in the absence of good data."

Let's hope we get that good data next year. Then the FDA and women's physicians can make an informed decision about how best to use Mifeprex. The most important thing is that women have access to safe abortion. It's not just a matter of choice.

By Hillary Frey

Hillary Frey is the Books editor at Salon.

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