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Prenatal Controversy
in Two Countries

The controversy over prenatal life heated up during the past week, in both the United States and Great Britain. An advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended approval of the pregnancy-termination pill RU-486 for use in the U.S. And in Britain, plans to destroy five-year-old frozen embryos have created an uproar among anti-abortion groups. While these events are quite separate, they serve to illustrate, once again, the intensity of the debate over the ethics of ending the potential for life existing in the human embryo.

RU-486, developed by the French pharmaceutical company Roussel-Uclaf, is based on the antiprogesterone drug Mifepristone. Mifepristone is derived from norethindrone, a steroid hormone similar in structure to the natural hormone progesterone. Progesterone is essential to maintaining a pregnancy; without it, a woman's reproductive organs will not function effectively. When taken during pregnancy, RU-486 prevents progesterone from interacting with a woman's body and a miscarriage occurs.

The FDA advisory panel pointed out that use of RU-486 carries a high risk of side effects. Approximately four out of five women tested experienced uterine contractions, often painful; roughly one-half experienced nausea, and one in five suffered from vomiting and/or diarrhea. Although unpleasant, these conditions were seen to be temporary.

The advisory panel's recommendation is not binding on the FDA, which will make a final decision by September on whether or not the drug will be marketed in the U.S. RU-486 has been used in France since 1988 and is also available in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and China. The Population Council, a non-profit research organization, has U.S. patent rights for the drug. Abortion-rights organizations, such as the Planned Parenthood Federation, are encouraged by the advisory panel's judgment, but anti-abortion groups, such as the American Life League, are gearing up for a battle.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom...

More than 3,000 British embryos in a state of deep freeze are due to be destroyed July 31 because they will have been kept for five years -- the limit set by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority. The embryos, belonging to some 900 parents who produced them by in-vitro fertilization, have gone unclaimed, presumably because the parents who originally planned to have children have since divorced, died, or for another reason decided against having the children. By British law, the embryos cannot be used by anyone else, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the parents. Parents who step forward before the 31st can choose to extend the time period, donate the embryos to other would-be parents, or donate them for scientific research.

The British anti-abortion organization LIFE, whose members are determined to save the embryos, are arguing for an extension. They are pushing the case for permitting either adoption or foster parenting for the children that might be born of the embryos. LIFE has lined up a small number of couples who are willing to accept a few of the embryos, and spokespersons for the organization insist they can find many more. The clinics holding the embryos are not happy about destroying them, but they are bound by the parental-consent regulation and the five-year limit, and despite their best efforts, they have been unable to contact the couples who own the embryos.

Online Resources

For a summary of a research paper on RU-486, see Induction of abortion with mifepristone. For daily news reports from the pharmaceutical world, try World Pharma-Web.

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Posted July, 1996.
© Copyright 1996 OBS