NRL News

New Research Bulletin: The Past, Present, and Future of Chemical Abortifacients in the U.S. and Abroad

by | Aug 15, 2012

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research

Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D.

It is often the case that to understand the situation you’re in, you need to understand exactly how you got there.  That’s certainly the case with chemical abortifacients like RU-486.  And understanding how they got here will help us better understand the abortion industry’s plans for the future.

The latest Research Bulletin of the Association for Interdisciplinary Research in Values and Social Change (AIRVSC) features two articles. One, by yours truly, details the history of RU-486 in the U.S. The second, written by Donna Harrison, MD, past president and current director of research and public policy for the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, discusses the use of RU-486 in the developing world. 

Copies of the Summer 2012 edition of the AIRVSCbulletin can be downloaded from

The search for an easy, simple, safe way to make pregnancy “disappear” using some chemical concoction goes back to ancient times.  Because those methods–famous in fawning abortion mythologies–were nearly always  highly dangerous or ineffective, surgical abortion methods superseded folk medicines in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But women found surgical abortion demeaning. They also feared (legitimately so) what the cutting and the scraping might do to their future fertility.  

Scientists began to understand more about the role hormones played in pregnancy. A French steroid researcher by the name of Etienne-Emile Baulieu, began to speculate about the possibility of a compound that would act as a hormone blocker. The idea was that it would counteract the effects of progesterone, which normally functions to build and maintain the endometrium which houses and sustains the child at the earliest embryonic stage.

George Teutsch, a scientist working with Baulieu, found such a compound in 1980, the one today called RU-486 (generically, mifepristone), and Baulieu began testing it for the abortion application.  After pairing it with a prostaglandin (prostaglandins stimulate powerful uterine contractions), they had a two-drug combination that killed the developing human and then expells the tiny corpse starved to death by the mifepristone. In 1988 Baulieu got approval to market the drug in France.

Though abortion advocates and their allies in the media clamored for the drug in the U.S., it wasn’t until President Bill Clinton took office in 1993 and directed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to seek an application that the process got going.  After many stumbles and a great deal of difficulty in finding a manufacturer, the drug received FDA approval in September of 2000, towards the end of Clinton’s second term.

Despite heavy marketing, the drug was slow to take off.  The abortion industry had hoped that it bring in whole new generations of doctors and open whole new markets. But too many women and too many of their doctors realized that despite the new packaging, the product was still abortion, and they wanted little to do with it.

Despite the industry’s best efforts, women and their doctors found out that the new chemical abortion process was not nearly as safe or simple as the pill’s promoters had tried to make it seem.  Even when things went as planned, women bled heavily and experienced a great deal of pain, and the process could take a number of days.  Diarrhea, vomiting, and disconcerting nausea were common side effects.  And in many cases, after all that trouble, it might not “work.”

Stories eventually came out of young women who died after taking the abortifacients.   Holly Patterson, 18, of California died less than a week after taking RU-486, contracting a rare but deadly infection.  The same bacteria took the lives of Vivian Tran, Chanelle Bryant, and Orianne Shevin.   Other RU-486 patients died of ectopic pregnancies that ruptured after they went undetected.  A couple of teenagers who took the drug in Europe bled to death.  

All told, by April 30, 2011, there had been a couple of thousand of women reporting serious complications and at least 14 deaths of RU-486 patients in the U.S. reported to the FDA, along with another five deaths from other countries. 

News of these deaths was probably responsible for a blip in sales and caused more than a few doctors to be reluctant to add RU486 to their practices. A joint meeting between the FDA and the CDC convened in 2006 looked into the sudden rash of deaths but ended up (against the recommendation of several of the experts brought in to testify) offering reassurances that the problem was pregnancy in general [!], rather than the abortion drug.

Growth in the U.S. has been slow, but steady.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, RU-486 was involved in 14% of all non-hospital abortions performed in the U.S. in 2005, and more than a quarter of those done at nine weeks gestation or less.

Donna Harrison, in her contribution, points out why chemical abortion methods are so appealing to abortion’s international advocates; they envision the drug as a way to bring abortion into the developing world.  While women in such areas lack access to trained doctors and medical facilities where surgical abortions may be performed, abortion advocates believe they can get abortions to these women by delivering a few pills.

Harrison points out that the effect of this push will not simply be more abortions, but also more women injured and dying. In their more frank moments, Harrison says, chemical abortion’s advocates admit this, but often they trot out statistics that demonstrate a greater commitment to the cause than they do to the truth.

With plans in operation to promote RU-486 and other, cheaper chemical abortifacients in developing nations around the world, and efforts underway in the United States to expand RU-486 use via web-cam abortions, it becomes readily apparent that the abortion industry intends to use this new technology to extend the reach of abortion in the U.S. and around the globe.

Recent history has shown us that this will not only mean the death of more unborn children, but also a new risk to the lives of their mothers.   Chemical abortifacients may change the image of abortion, but not the consequences.

Categories: RU486