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Bill Introduced to Restrict Use of the Abortion Pill

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Feb. 6, 2001 (Washington) -- Some Republican lawmakers are once again mounting an effort to restrict the use of the highly controversial abortion pill RU-486.

U.S. Rep. David Vitter, (R-La.), and U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, (R-Ark.), on Tuesday introduced legislation that would require physicians prescribing the drug to have previous experience performing surgical abortions. The bill, similar to one introduced by Hutchinson last year, also would require prescribing physicians to receive special training, be able to read an ultrasound, and be able to admit patients to a nearby hospital.

"This bill seeks to ensure that the health of women who take this drug will not be jeopardized due to the improper administration of the drug by an inadequately trained health professional," said Hutchinson at a press conference. "I have no doubt that if women were asked whether their doctor should be required to be able to read an ultrasound, handle complications, and get them admitted to the hospital in case of emergency, they would not hesitate to demand those levels of competence."

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"This legislation is about protecting women's health," Vitter said. "Last fall, the Clinton-Gore FDA caved into political pressure from the abortion lobby and hurriedly approved the abortion drug without crucial health protections for those who use it. Our legislation corrects that mistake."

Last September, the FDA approved RU-486, also called mifepristone and sold under the name Mifeprex, under a set of rules most often used for the "fast-track" approval of drugs to treat life-threatening diseases, such as AIDS. The FDA also proposed, but then abandoned, the set of restrictions outlined in the legislation proposed Tuesday.

But pro-choice forces say the bill is a thinly disguised effort to chip away at women's right to choose.

"Claims that this legislation is motivated by a concern for women's health are at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, following the Republican press conference.

Although the FDA considered similar restrictions, the agency subsequently rejected them because they were medically unnecessary and inconsistent with the way medicine is practiced in the U.S., Saporta noted. In addition, she pointed out, the FDA did not abandon all of the proposed restrictions. Doctors prescribing the drug are still required to be able to complete a surgical abortion or at least have access to another qualified surgeon.

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Joining the National Abortion Federation in protesting the legislation were several other members of Congress, as well as the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and Planned Parenthood of America.

But despite warning that this legislation is a serious threat and a signal of the current administration's intention to eventually outlaw abortions, opponents of the legislation predicted that it has little chance of passing the Senate, even if passed by the House, where antiabortion forces enjoy their strongest support.

"A lot of members, who might otherwise vote for such things as a ban on partial-birth abortions, have clear trouble with telling the FDA what to do," explained Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D-Conn.).

And some members of Congress would be deterred from voting for the proposed bill because the drug also is being tested and used for the treatment of breast cancer, brain tumors, and other illnesses, she said.

Since becoming available in November, about 100 abortion clinics have begun offering Mifeprex to patients, according to the National Abortion Federation, which represents approximately 400 clinics nationwide. The drug also is approved in 17 other countries and has been used by more than half a million women in Europe and millions of women in China.

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Patients in the U.S. can get Mifeprex only from doctors that have signed an agreement to follow the guidelines set by the FDA. Besides requiring doctors to at least have access to an abortion specialist, those guidelines also require regular checkups to ensure that the treatment worked and that the women who took it did not suffer from excessive bleeding, a complication that occurs in about 1% of patients.

FDA officials say these guidelines were based upon science alone. FDA officials also say the drug was approved under the "fast-track" process because the use of this mechanism gave the agency the ability to control how the drug is prescribed.

But even the potential defeat of this proposed legislation is unlikely to end the debate surrounding Mifeprex's approval. Besides challenging the drug's safety, opponents of the drug also have raised questions regarding Cytotec, a drug that must be combined with Mifeprex to complete the abortion.

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The legislation introduced last year aimed to restrict the use of Mifeprex to specialists, such as ob-gyns, who could perform surgical abortions and treat other complications. The measure failed to pass due in large part to the argument that restricting its use to those specialists would be tantamount to its withdrawal and would discriminate against women in rural areas with limited access to specialists.

But supporters and opponents of Mifeprex agree that its widespread availability would make abortion more accessible and more private because women could then end their pregnancies at home rather than travel to an abortion clinic.

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