RU-486, technically known as Mifeprex, is a dose of pills that can be taken by a woman up to forty-nine days after the beginning of her last menstrual cycle in order to abort her baby. The drugs work by blocking the action of progesterone, which is necessary for sustaining a pregnancy. If the abortion has not already been confirmed within thirty-six to forty-eight hours after the woman takes her first three pills, she is given another two, called Cytotec (misoprostol). This completes the abortion by softening the cervix and causing uterine bleeding and contractions.
Before leaving the doctor’s office after this second visit, the woman is given the name and number of the doctor who will be handling any emergencies caused by the drug. Two weeks after the initial visit, the doctor completes the treatment by confirming that an abortion has occurred. The makers of the drug say that “the existence of debris in the uterus following the treatment procedure will not necessarily require surgery for its removal.” The “debris” they mention includes the remains of the child. However, between 5 and 8 percent of women who take the drugs will require surgery to end the pregnancy or stop excessive bleeding.
RU-486 is over 90 percent effective when used during the first seven weeks of pregnancy. If it fails, the woman is encouraged to have a surgical abortion. Should the baby survive the drug and the woman opt against a surgical abortion, the child often suffers mental or physical defects because of the chemicals in the drugs. These may include facial malformations, skull defects, delayed growth, and limb defects. Animal studies also showed that offspring exposed to the drug while in the womb experienced malformation of the ovaries, delayed puberty, deficient male sexual behavior, and other side effects. The effect of the drug on breast-fed babies is unknown.
Sometimes RU-486 also takes the life of the mother. For example, a teenage girl named Holly Patterson was given the drug by Planned Parenthood in California and died of septic shock. Several days after taking the drug, she went to the hospital. The staff assured her that “her pain and bleeding were normal, and she was sent home with painkillers.” Three days later she returned to the hospital, where she died. Her father told reporters, “There’s no quick fix for pregnancy, no magic pill. . . . They told her it was safe, and it killed her.” Following her passing, her parents wrote, “We will never be able to forget those last moments of her life when she was too weak to talk and could barely squeeze our hands in acknowledgment of our words of encouragement. ‘We love you, Holly,” Just hang in there, the whole family is coming,’ ‘You fight this Holly, you can do it.”’ Holly died in September 2003, and by mid-2005 at least three other women in California were killed by the drug—three of the four having received it from Planned Parenthood.
Deaths also have been reported in Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. So far the only thing to change is the label of the drug (twice). In 2004 the FDA also issued a warning about the risks ofRU-486, because it had received reports of 676 “adverse events” linked to the drug since its approval in 2000. But the makers of the drug, Danco Laboratories, stand by their product. They acknowledge that abortions can increase a woman’s chance of infections but say, “We do not believe that the Mifeprex and misoprostol regimen presents any special risk of infections.”
Holly Patterson died from sepsis, which is a severe illness caused by infection of the bloodstream. But RU-486 can have a number of lethal complications. For example, three months before Holly’s death, a teenager in Sweden bled to death after taking the abortion drug. She didn’t go to the hospital because she was told to expect her bleeding to last for two weeks. Meanwhile, an Iowa woman narrowly escaped death after losing one-half to two-thirds of her blood volume after the medical abortion. Women also can die as a result of ruptured ectopic pregnancies. The family of one such woman in Tennessee is suing her abortion clinic for malpractice, claiming that they could have prevented her death had they diagnosed her correctly. In Canada the drug trials of RU-486 were suspended after it killed a woman in 2001.
Unfortunately, the United States has yet to ban the drug. Therefore, many citizens are pushing for the government to pass “Holly’s Law,” which would withdraw FDA approval of RU-486 and subject the drug to a thorough review, which it never received. According to Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, “RU-486 was rushed to approval for political purposes . . . and as a result numerous safety concerns were suppressed, trivialized and overlooked.” In 2006 Smith pleaded to Congress, “How many deaths, investigations and warnings will it take before RU-486 is properly labeled as lethal and removed from the market?”
Advocates of the drug are quick to remind others that the number of deaths caused by the drug is small compared to the number of women who have used it. However, according to The New England Journal of Medicine, women who use RU-486 are approximately ten times as likely to die as women who undergo surgical abortions at the same time of pregnancy.
Other side effects of RU-486 are common. In fact, the makers of the drug say, “Nearly all of the women who receive Mifeprex and misoprostol will report adverse reactions, and many can be expected to report more than one such reaction.” These may include heavy bleeding (which can last for a month or more, and sometimes necessitates blood transfusions), fatal septic shock, abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, headache, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, back pain, uterine hemorrhage, viral infections, shaking, stomach pain, insomnia, leg pain, loss of consciousness, heart pounding, pelvic inflammatory disease, pelvic pain, hives, and more. No long-term studies have been done to assess the drug’s cancer-causing potential.
Perhaps one of the worst complications from the abortion pill is the emotional toll it takes on the expectant mothers. Since a woman can take the drugs up until her seventh week of pregnancy, a woman who uses RU-486 sometimes experiences traumatic emotional consequences when the baby passes out of her body. Many of the women express resentment that they were not prepared for what they saw. On post-abortive support Web sites, users of RU-486 express their heartbreak. One woman said, “[ I] wish someone had said there was a chance I would see it clearly and that I should prepare myself for what I was going to do.” Another woman grieved, “It’s been a year and a half, but I can still remember how it looked and felt. . . . I held my baby in my hand. . . . Head, eyes, nose, arms, fingers. . . . I cried over it, kissed it. . . . (sigh) That was the worst part of all . . . I knew what she was. I couldn’t fool myself. I stared at her for the longest time . . . felt like eternity. I will never forget that sight as long as I live.”
Other women share her remorse, saying things such as, “I saw every feature perfectly. . . . It was very, very tiny . . . just stared at it . . . was in shock. . . . It’s what I see when I go to bed . . . can never un-see what I saw . . . can’t lose the image . . . don’t know how to deal with this . . . haven’t told anybody . . . horrifying . . . nightmares . . . lots of nightmares.” At the sight of their unborn babies, other mothers stared in shock, not knowing what to do with the remains: “I . . . wrapped her in a piece of tissue . . . wish I’d taken her and buried her properly. . . can’t forget just flushing my baby away. . . . I will never forgive myself for this, never ever.”
After one reads such accounts, one can only hope that these women have indeed forgiven themselves and found healing.
. Mifeprex (mifepristone) Tablets, 200mg. Danco Laboratories, LLC (July 19, 2005), 8.
. Mifeprex, Medication Guide. Danco Laboratories, LLC (July 19, 2005) 1.
. Mifeprex (mifepristone) Tablets, 200mg. Danco Laboratories, LLC (July 19, 2005), 9–10.
. Sabin Russell, “Taker of Abortion Pill Died Due to Infection,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 1, 2003, A:19.
. Brewer, “Family Blames RU-486 in Woman’s Death,” Contra Costa Times (September 20, 2003).
. Monty and Helen Patterson, “An Open Letter from the Parents of Holly Patterson—Death by RU-486,” November 6, 2003.
. Danco Laboratories, “Dear Health Care Provider,” July 19, 2005.
. “Planned Parenthood Kills Two More Mothers,” Wednesday STOPP report, March 22, 2006.
. ‘“Holly’s Law’ Still Necessary to Protect Women From RU-486,” USCCB Office of Media Relations (May 12, 2006).
. “Mifepristone Questions and Answers,” FDA, November 16, 2004.
. Danco Laboratories, “Dear Health Care Provider,” July 19, 2005.
. Susan Wills, “Statistics and Complications Who Were Someone’s Daughter,” USCCB Life Issues Forum (November 19, 2004).
. Christine Hall, “Lawsuit Alleges Medical Malpractice in RU-486-Related Death” CNSNews.com (September 3, 2002).
. “Smith Urges Passage of Holly’s Law After RU-486 Is Linked to Additional Deaths of Women,” Washington, D.C., March 16, 2006.
. “Smith Urges Passage of Holly’s Law.”
. Michael Greene, “Fatal Infections Associated with Mifepristone- Induced Abortion,” The New England Journal of Medicine 353:22 (December 1, 2005), 2317–2318.
. Mifeprex (mifepristone) Tablets, 10.
. Anonymous, M.D., Unprotected (New York: Sentinel, 2006), 87–89.