Anna Quindlen’s Newsweek column of February 7, 2009 addresses the “French abortion pill” RU-486 in America (which was approved for use in 2000) and what access to this drug might mean to the women who turn to it. Essentially, she says that as the political battle over reproductive rights are so publicly waged, RU-486 allows women to take their choice home with them in what is rightly a private affair.
The pill works by interfering with the body’s production of progesterone, which builds up uterine lining for pregnancy and is usable for women up to seven weeks pregnant. The first pill is administered in a doctor’s office, and the second (misoprostol) is taken at home a day or so later and induces uterine contractions. Quindlen reports that half of the women eligible for medical abortion choose this method over surgical abortion at Planned Parenthood, and family practitioners and gynocologists may prescribe RU-486 when able rather than sending their patients elsewhere.
Quindlen writes (emphasis mine):
RU-486 flies in the face of anti-abortion orthodoxies, and not simply because some physicians who have never dreamed of performing a surgical abortion have no qualms about making the medication available. It counters the irresponsibility myth, which suggests that women who end pregnancies are thoughtless, feckless, and have not bothered with birth control or matrimony, despite the fact that many women who have abortions are married and were using contraception that failed. RU-486, which now accounts for 14 percent of all abortions nationwide, demands a high degree of responsibility. A woman has to ascertain early that she is pregnant and then take charge of the process herself, choosing to deal at home with the results. With every new political power shift the abortion issue arises again, with talk of a search for common ground and the future of Roe v. Wade. But change in party or philosophy cannot change this undeniable fact: women who do not want to be pregnant will try to end their pregnancies. They will do it because they don’t have enough money, or enough support, or they think they are too young or too overwhelmed by circumstance. They always have, and they always will. Rat poison, Lysol, ergot, bleach—oh, the historical list of desperate measures is long. Over the years some have died, leaving motherless children behind.
She rightly points out that if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, the internet would become the avenue of choice for illegal abortions (and this is already in occurence, of course). She cites the case of a 22-year-old migrant farm worker in South Carolina who was held in jail for four months after using the ulcer drug Cytotec to indice abortion (the woman had three children and didn’t believe she could support a fourth):
I would suggest that you try putting yourself in her situation, but the problem here is with strangers passing judgment on other people’s situations in the first place. That’s why more and more women are choosing RU-486, because it enables them to take care of their own business in their own homes. No outsiders allowed. If we could travel back in time, before government was invited into the practice of gynecology, we might choose precisely this sort of private ritual. A glass of water, some pills, a decision that may be pragmatic or painful or both but is, above all, personal. Never has the word “choice” been so clear.
I’m always a fan of Quindlen’s measured and thoughtful tones, and appreciate her effort to shine the light on the benefits of RU-486. Not only is it highly effective and far less invasive that surgical abortion, but she rightly notes that it helps take choice back where it belongs: to an individual woman, in her own circumstances, and in privacy.