The Interim has published several articles on RU-486. Versions of this article have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun. We print it here because of the issue’s importance.
“Dumping chemicals into women’s bodies – specifically into their reproductive systems – has generated billions of dollars in profits for multinational pharmaceutical companies. In the second half of the 20th century these giant companies have created a reproductive technology “market” which they have inundated with “products” such as the contraceptive pill, the Dalkon shield, Norplant, Depo-Provera, VES, DES and ritodrine (to name just a few).
All of these drugs and appliances have two things in common: (1) they were not properly tested before they were marketed, and (2) they damaged the health of literally millions of women.
But certainly – those of us interested in women’s health tell ourselves – these drugs were marketed in the “bad old days,” before we knew about the damaged health of so many women; and before the feminist movement adopted a watchdog role and demanded stricter government regulation of such new drugs. Surely, the likelihood of powerful, improperly tested drugs being used on women today is remote.
Enter RU-486, the “abortion pill,” the latest chemical innovation in fertility-control technology. The Canadian lobby for RU-486 has organized a media blitz extolling the advantages of the drug for women as a safe alternative to surgical and suction abortion. M.P. Dawn Black, NDP critic on the status of women, has written in newspapers across Canada that “we should at least test RU-486 (in Canada)…then, if and only if RU-486 proves to be safe, we should make it available.”
To be sure, the only testing of RU-486/prostaglandin prior to1988 was to determine dosage and did not resolve – or even seriously address – the issue of the drug’s safety. As so often happens in cases of drugs aimed at women, marketing of RU-486/prostaglandin has preceded determination of the drug’s safety.
The drug’s first large-scale testing has only been underway in France (since1988) and in England (since 1991). These massive field trials have involved to date more than 100,000 women. Canadian health officials and advocates for women’s health, rather than rushing to duplicate these trials, need to study the data they have this far produced.
Canadians should be aware that by the autumn of 1991 reports from the French trials had already begun to alarm women’s health advocates around the world. In September, 1991, a group of women scientists from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Institute on Women and Technology issued a report under the name of “Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering” (FINRRAGE ).
“We felt what was being lost in the political debate was how the drug affects women. In contrast with the groups who are anti-feminist and anti-abortion, the Institute on Women and Technology advocates women’s rights to abortion and self-determination,” said Dr. Janice Raymond of FINRRAGE. (Boston Herald, Sept. 12, 1991)
“We cannot allow…acceptance of a combination drug treatment that has not been investigated critically, and from a nonaligned perspective, i.e., a perspective not affiliated with the interest of the medical researchers, drug companies, and population control organizations.” FINNRAGE continued in its critique of RU-486 (RU –486 Misconceptions, Myths and Morals, Renate Klein, Janice G. Raymond, Lynette J. Dumble, Spinifex Press, Australia, 1991, p. 7).
FINNRAGE has likened RU-486 to taking a “drug cocktail”: (1) RU-486, (2) a prostaglandin injection or suppository to induce uterine contractions, (3) an anti-nausea drug, (4) pain medication (needed by 60 percent of women, with more than 30 percent requiring a morphine-type drug and (5) antibiotics, if an infection develops.
FINNRAGE has pointed to the severe, sometimes violent side effects of prostaglandins and RU-486: nausea, headache, dizziness, diarrhea and bleeding. Post-abortion bleeding is a major complication of an RU-486 abortion and can last up to35 or 40 cays. With a mean duration of eight to10 days. Some women have required blood transfusions.
In addition, the gastrointestinal side effects of prostaglandins are (often) trivialized when diarrhea, superimposed on the abortion’s physical and psychological demands, especially dehumanizing.” (Klein, Raymond and Dumble, p.85).
In April, 1991, FINRRAGE confirms, the first woman was killed in France by an RU-486 prostaglandin abortion. There have been three reported cases of heart attacks; the danger of strokes from the procedure is also acknowledged. The manufacturer warns in its booklet Necessary Facilities that “cardiovascular monitoring equipment, emergency resuscitation medication and e1quipment, and emergency theatre facilities” must available during an RU-486 abortion.
Likewise because of the high (four per cent to seven per cent) rate of RU-486 abortions, women in France must sign in advance a document agreeing to a surgical abortion backup.
The reason for this is acknowledged by the manufacturer Roussel/UCLAF’s team in The New England Journal of Medicine (March 8, 1990): “The question arises whether the fetus is harmed if the pregnancy continues (one per cent of the pregnancies in this series) …Prostaglandins have been reported to be teratogenic (harmful to the fetus) in both animals and humans. Thus, women must be duly informed and understand the potential risks of choosing such a method of pregnancy termination.”
Pauline Connor (Lib) of Feminists Against Eugenics in Liverpool, England, goes further to report that the drug’s mechanism is extremely complicated. Its effect is not localized or short term. Its long-term impact on the health of women and their future fertility, and on children subsequently born to women who use it, is unknown. At best it is experimental; at it’s worst, lethal.”
Connor concludes, “what has been presented as a simple, pill-popping exercise is, in fact, an intensely medicalized and painful procedure which can involve up to four clinic visits and last up to 12 days…RU-486 is dangerous, experimental and –ultimately – misogynistic. We oppose it with every means possible.”
Undoubtedly, early results from the French field trials raise such grave concerns about its safety as to preclude even testing RU-486 on Canadian women. Canadian woman should not serve as guinea pigs for testing a demonstrably dangerous drug.