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Neither Safe Nor Sure

One of the first acts of Italy's new government was to announce the go-ahead for trials using abortion pills. The pills go under a variety of names, including mifespristone, Mifeprex and RU-486. Health Minister Livia Turco announced that a number of hospitals would be able to import the pills for experimentation, reported the daily Corriere della Sera on May 23.

The decision reverses the previous government's prohibition of the trials, following a debate over the issue last year.

The announcement drew immediate protests. Francesco D'Agostino, president of the National Bioethics Committee, while not going so far as to completely condemn the use of the abortion pill, noted that contrary to first appearances the pill is not all that safe for women and that its use involves objective risks.

A May 24 editorial in the Vatican's semiofficial newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, declared that the decision adds another weapon to the anti-life arsenal. It also criticized the haste with which the decision was taken, and the lack of any effort to listen to contrasting opinions on such a contentious issue.

Italy's decision comes as concerns over RU-486 are growing in the United States. The pill has been linked to four deaths in California and one in Canada. The deaths were the result of bacterial infections, facilitated, according to a number of experts, by the use of the pill.

On May 11 scientists gathered to discuss what role the abortion pill might have played in the deaths, reported the Associated Press that day. Opinions were divided, according to the report, with some holding that the use of RU-486 enabled the spread of the bacteria, and others calling for more research before being able to make a decision.

Higher risk of death

James McGregor, an obstetrics professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, said the risk of death from medical abortions such as those caused by the pill is 1 in 80,000. This is significantly higher than the 1 in 1 million risk from surgical abortions. "I recommend we reduce or eliminate mifespristone, or at least consider that," McGregor was quoted as saying by the AP.

In Congress, the House subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources also heard evidence regarding the dangers involved with the pill, the Washington Post reported May 17.

"Considering the evidence we have of deaths and serious side effects, the maker of this drug should have taken it off the market long ago," said Michelle Gress, counsel to the subcommittee and spokeswoman for its chairman, Mark Souder.

Souder is one of 83 co-sponsors of a bill that would force the drug off the market. The bill goes under the name of "Holly's Law," after Holly Patterson, an 18-year-old Californian who died of an infection after using the pill.

According to a briefing paper prepared by the House subcommittee's staff, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "has acknowledged the deaths of eight women associated with the drug, nine life-threatening incidents, 232 hospitalizations, 116 blood transfusions, and 88 cases of infection." The briefing paper noted that these and other cases add up to a total of 950 adverse event reports as of March 31.

Concern over RU-486 even came from an unlikely source: a New York Times editorial. The reports of women's deaths, the April 10 editorial commented, "are making the regimen based on RU-486 look a lot less attractive than once thought."

Australia and UK approval

In spite of mounting evidence of the pill's dangerous side effects, plans are under way for the importation of RU-486 into Australia. Earlier this year the federal Parliament took away the health minister's power to block imports of the pill, handing it over to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Australian equivalent of the FDA.

According to a report in Tuesday's Courier Mail, a newspaper in the state of Queensland, local women will be the first in the country to have access to RU-486. Caroline de Costa, an obstetrician based in the town of Cairns, declared she has received approval to make the pill available from next month. De Costa plans to import supplies of RU-486 from New Zealand.

Meanwhile, in Britain, figures revealed that the pills accounted for 10,000 abortions in 2005. The data came from BPAS (formerly the British Pregnancy Advisory Service), the country's largest abortion provider, the Times newspaper reported May 29. The pills accounted for nearly a third of the 32,000 abortions BPAS provided last year to women in the first nine weeks of pregnancy.

BPAS Chief Executive Ann Furedi replied to criticisms over the widespread use of the abortion pill. Quoted in an article published Monday on the Web site "Spiked," Furedi declared the drug to be a "safe, reliable, effective method of medical abortion."


Not so, says a book published this week in Italy: "La favola dell'aborto facile: Miti e realtà della pillola RU486" (The Fable of Easy Abortion: Myths and Realities of the RU-486 Pill).

The well-documented book highlights an interesting phenomenon in Italy: a growing alliance between feminists and pro-lifers. Co-author Eugenia Roccella comes from a strongly left-wing, non-religious background. She was also a key figure in the women's liberation movement in Italy in the 1970s. The other co-author, Assuntina Morresi, is a pro-life Catholic.

The two united forces to publish the book, which brings together the latest information on the dangers posed by use of the abortion pill, both physical and psychological.

A key objective of the book is to dispel the notion that using the abortion pill is some sort of easy solution. Some pro-lifers fear that the pill makes abortion too convenient. And those in favor of abortion defend it as an easier alternative to a surgical procedure.

In fact, Roccella and Morresi explain, abortions procured by chemical means are more drawn out, difficult and uncertain than the surgical alternative. Using the abortion pill requires repeated visits to a clinic. And o

nly in 3% of cases does the abortion take place within 48 hours of taking the first pill, according to FDA data.

The pill also normally causes symptoms such as abdominal pains and cramps, nausea, hemorrhages, headaches and vomiting. The most painful part of the process, when the fetus is finally expelled from the mother's body, can last for hours.

According to the authors, a conservative estimate of the number of deaths worldwide due to chemical abortions reached 13 (as of late March). The real number could be higher, the book notes, since in general the media have preferred to turn a blind eye to reporting the deaths and other problems due to the pill.

The side effects of the pill are more than physical. Many women, 56% according to a study cited in the book, actually see the corpse of the aborted fetus. This traumatic experience can trigger nightmares and flashbacks in women. If the pill doesn't prove fatal first.

[10June2006, News Agency]