RU-486 has "transformed" abortion

But will it ever be a matter of "just taking a pill"?

Published January 23, 2008 3:10PM (EST)

This time, we are talking about "the abortion pill." In an article about RU-486, the Washington Post declares that "thirty-five years after the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision, a pill that has largely faded from the rancorous public debate over abortion has slowly and quietly begun to transform the experience of ending a pregnancy in the United States."

Indeed, RU-486 has -- but for a flurry of reports in 2006 about fatalities linked to the drug via bacterial infection -- faded somewhat from the debate over abortion, and resurfaced in the debate over Plan B, where it doesn't belong in the first place. Most mentions of RU-486 in recent years, that is, have come up in the context of Plan B: that is, the deliberate, nefarious and wholly inaccurate conflation of "the abortion pill" and "the morning-after pill" -- just Google "morning-after abortion pill," in quotes, and you'll see -- and outraged clarifications to the contrary.

Meanwhile, as the Post describes -- and as Broadsheet mentioned in the context of the recent findings from the Guttmacher Institute on falling abortion rates -- RU-486, approved for use in the U.S. in 2000, has "slowly and steadily [become] integrated into the medical system." (That's according to Carol Joffe, professor of sociology at UC-Davis.) The Guttmacher report suggests that some of the decline in the number of surgical abortion clinics could be offset by clinics that provide only RU-486. The advent of this pill, which can be prescribed and administered in a doctor's office, wasn't the overnight revolution some predicted, dreaming of an end to abortion clinic protests. But still. "The impact and the promise is huge," Beth Jordan, medical director of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, told the Post. "It's going a long way towards normalizing abortion."

The appeal of the pill is, on its face, obvious; though the procedure is not necessarily painless, come on: Who wouldn't want a "root canal pill"? And when we talk about the "normalization" of abortion, much of what we mean is making it -- medically and practically -- a procedure like any other, a decision made between a woman and her doctor, not between a woman and Anthony Kennedy.

Ironically, though, some of the anecdotes in the Post piece characterize the experience of abortion as anything but "normal." Several of the women interviewed (not a scientific sample, obviously) say they chose the pill to make the experience, in its own way, special -- the kind of thing you don't do in your doctor's office. Said one woman: "It was something I could do at home and be with my husband. It was a decision we made together alone, and we were able to take care of it this way alone. It was just a much more private affair."

"I liked the idea of being more in control," said another. Like undergoing the procedure at home, this is also not necessarily a patient's goal when it comes to a triple bypass, or even a nose job.

Part of the draw of RU-486 is also the promise of discretion, which in itself belies the sense that abortion is "normal."

It's important, I'm just saying, to leave room for nuance here: to say that abortion should be "normal" medically and legally even as it also may be, for many women, anything but.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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