Abortion pill aftershocks


The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Thursday, the federal government handed American women a new option for obtaining an abortion, and in so doing transformed the political fight that has raged since the procedure was legalized in 1973.

Ever since Roe vs. Wade, anti-abortion activists have been able to target many of their protests at a finite number of abortion providers, concentrating on the clinics where about 1.3 million American women go each year to have their abortions.

But by dispersing abortion into homes and ordinary doctors’ offices, the RU-486 pill changes the physical landscape, making those locations elusive, the targets anonymous.

Activists on both sides agreed Thursday that the pill will radically alter the tactics and counter-tactics that have become mainstays of abortion politics. But the greatest burden is on anti-abortion groups to keep the stigma alive.

Within hours of the FDA’s decision Thursday, the anti-abortion movement began searching for new, more sophisticated ways to convince American women that taking the pill is not a routine procedure but an option as morally and politically loaded as having a surgical abortion.

"Right now the average ob/gyn will say ‘That’s not my specialty’ and refer you to the abortion clinic," said Troy Newman of Operation Rescue West, a spinoff of the radical anti-abortion group known for organizing some of the most aggressive clinic protests. "But now any ob/gyn has to face the question, and that makes things more difficult for us."

Newman and other anti-abortion protesters spent the day devising possible new databases, new pamphlets, new arguments. For Newman, it was just a question of redoubling their efforts. "We can just call every hospital, every ob/gyn and ask them: ‘If I am your patient will you give me RU-486?’ " said Newman. "Then we will treat them the exact same way we treat an abortion provider."

Others spoke of expanding their list of targets in new and creative ways, investigating to identify the unnamed pharmaceutical company that manufactures the pill, the investors who funded it and perhaps even the FDA that approved it.

Some anti-abortion groups were thinking up ways to equivocate abortion and RU-486, to counter the argument that the new option is morally neutral.

At the American Life League, which considers itself an education provider, the Rev. Joseph Howard said they were thinking of starting something called "Initiative 21" to remind women that a heart starts beating at 21 days after conception, well within the time most women would take RU-486.

"You try to emphasize a different set of biological facts," said Howard. "Because what’s the difference? RU-486 is a chemical procedure, abortion is a surgical procedure. That’s the only distinction. You’re still destroying an unborn life."

Many anti-abortion groups said they realize their hardest struggle will be to keep that scarlet letter affixed to a procedure many doctors and women are apt to find more palatable.

In surveys, women who have taken the pill in both the United States and Europe report feeling more comfortable with the procedure and less traumatized, exactly the feelings the anti-abortion groups want to prevent.

"It’s very private, so it removes some of the visibility, the harassment," said Susan Tew of the Allan Guttmacher Institute, which studies family planning. "And because it happens so early it might make the procedure more socially acceptable for many people, more mainstream."

Doctors are also more comfortable with the procedure. In a 1998 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 percent of doctors said they were "very" or "somewhat" likely to prescribe mifepristone, as RU-486 is also known, once it was available. Only 3 percent of them had performed surgical abortions.

RU-486 also has the potential to build a broader consensus for abortion. In general, Americans are more likely to accept abortion if it’s performed early; 61 percent said they support abortions in the first trimester, well within the seven-week window RU-486 is prescribed in. Support drops dramatically in later weeks.

To restore the shame, anti-abortion groups plan to seize on some of these perceived advantages of RU-486 and turn them into personal crosses to bear. Because the average doctor can do the procedure himself and not just shift it to a colleague, the average doctor now is faced with a stark moral choice, said the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the anti-abortion group Christian Defense Coalition.

And because a woman has to take the pill herself and not let the doctor do the procedure for her she too has to search her conscience.

"There are no more gray areas. This will separate the chaff from the wheat, the sheep from the goats," said Mahoney. "It will force every ob/gyn to ask himself: ‘Am I here to support life or kill it?’ instead of referring that moral dilemma to someone else."

"And now women are personally culpable," he said. "The baby doesn’t get sucked out into a tube where they can’t see it. They have to do it themselves. It personalizes the murder."

Some also considered another option: replacing an emphasis on stigma with one on women’s health, expressed in more soothing therapeutic tones. In its press releases, the National Right to Life Thursday underscored the "intense trauma" to women, the uterine bleeding and the contractions, the emotional stress and loneliness, and offered "healing help."

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