The deaths of 6 women who used RU 486, the non-surgical abortion drug also known as mifespristone, is creating the usual cacophony of voices demanding that the drug be taken off the market, even though the link between the drug and the deaths is not clear. While a drug that causes adverse reactions should certainly be investigated, but the reality is that the reaction to these deaths has a lot more to do with politics than the drug’s safety.
There is not one drug in any medicine cabinet in America that does not contain a list of possible adverse side effects. However RU 486 has been taken by more than 500,000 women since it’s approval by the FDA and has been used worldwide for more than 25 years and has a very low adverse reaction rate (.0007%). Many popular drugs have a far higher percentage of adverse reactions, at least 12% for the popular allergy drug Claritin and at least 5.5% for the acid reflux drug Nexium. Tylenol, which is considered to be a very safe drug, is linked to 150 fatal liver failures every year.
If those who call themselves ‘pro-lifers’ were really concerned about women’ s lives, they would be demanding funding to end the unnecessary deaths of more than 500,000 women every year from the complications of childbirth. According to UNFPA, 78,000 of those deaths are due to unsafe abortions. Ending the Global Gag Order (which contributes to more than 300,000 unwanted pregnancies every year) and restoring funding for family planning services should also be a top priority and making condoms easily and widely available would greatly reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Working to end violence against women would be another substantive way to save the lives of women. In this country alone, 1200 women are killed by intimate partners or family members every year and more than 5000 documented honor killings occur annually worldwide according to the U.N. Pregnant women are particularly at risk, with more than 1300 being killed in the U.S. since 1990. Female Genital Mutilation is another significant form of violence against women. It is estimated that 200,000 women and girls undergo to the procedure every year, which damages not only their own health but can lead to very serious complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
The outcry about RU 486 is also not about saving the lives of children. 5.6 million children die each year primarily because of malnutrition and two million have been killed by war and conflict in the last decade. Hundreds of thousands of children die every year from preventable diseases, lack of healthcare and child abuse. Working to end these deaths would save far more lives than banning RU 486.
But none of this is what really motivates the outcry against RU 486 or similar efforts to block access to Plan B, also known as the morning after pill, even though the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women have advance prescriptions for it so that they can obtain it in a timely manner if needed. And there has been a veritable stampede of states from North Dakota to Mississippi jockeying to be the state whose abortion ban is the one to overturn Roe v Wade.
The debate about RU 486 isn’t about the ostensible issue of its safety. Rather it is just another salvo in the ongoing attempt to deny women the basic human right of controlling their own bodies and to decide whether and when they will bear children.
LUCINDA MARSHALL is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org.