When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of RU-486 as a chemical abortion method in 2000, it said it was “safe and effective.” While its safety has proven to be dubious, it is effective in its intended purpose: to kill unborn babies.

The FDA approved use of the abortion pill for pregnancies of up to 49 days. It involves a two-step process. In the first, the pregnant woman takes Mifepristone at a doctor’s office or abortuary. This pill weakens the uterine lining, causing it to break up; instead of nourishing the fertilized egg (the early embryonic human being), it becomes a hostile environment. The embryo dies of what is best described as starvation.

Several days later, a second pill, misoprostol, is taken. Misoprostol causes the uterus to contract, which expels the embryo. As Planned Parenthood says on its website, “Within four hours after taking Misoprostol most pregnancies are terminated … The pre-embryo or embryo and other ‘products of conception’ that develop during pregnancy are passed out through the vagina. Complete abortion will occur in 96 to 97 per cent of women using RU-486.”

The problems arise in those three to four per cent of cases in which the “complete abortion” does not occur. If all the baby’s parts are not expelled – and how are girls and women going to be able to detect whether or not all of their unborn baby’s pieces are accounted for? – there is an increased risk of bacterial or other infections. To remove baby fragments after unsuccessful RU-486 abortions, a surgical abortion is necessary to complete the process.

Another problem arises with how the second stage is administered. A change in common practice from the FDA-approved protocol may have contributed to Holly Patterson’s death. The FDA said that Misoprostol should be administered orally during a second visit to the doctor’s office or abortuary. However, the common practice is to insert it vaginally and at home. Many abortionists say there are fewer side-effects and that doing it at home is more convenient for women.

The staff at the abortuary attended by Patterson instructed her to take Misoprostol at home. As a number of pro-life groups have noted, Patterson would not be trained to detect complications. In fact, she thought – or at least she said she thought – her pains were cramps.

The FDA says that during its clinical trials, Misoprostol was never reviewed for vaginal insertion. Therefore, the agency “cannot offer a conclusion about the safety and efficacy of this route of administration.” The FDA reiterated that it “strongly encourages” the “approved regimen.” – Christina Tuns