It took a dozen years after it was introduced in France for the abortion drug RU-486 to become available to American women.
The reason was politics, not medicine.
Overseas, the drug regimen was shown to be safe and effective for early-stage abortions, but RU-486 was initially banned for import by the Food and Drug Administration under the President George H.W. Bush. It wasn't until 2000 that the FDA finally approved RU-486 for personal use in the United States.
I predicted at the time that the antiabortion movement would lose some steam. I thought that moving abortions from clinics, where protesters could gather, to a multitude of doctors' offices would diffuse a flash-point for activism and the issue would start to fade.
Boy, was I wrong.
In the last few years, the onslaught of new laws against a woman's right to choose has surged through the red states like a Ford truck through a mud puddle. The year 2011 set a record with 92 new provisions in 24 states to restrict access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In 2012, there were 43 new provisions.
In Florida, five abortion-related measures have been approved since 2011, including one that requires an ultrasound before each abortion.
Two factors have coalesced to push the issue forward. One is the rise of tea party conservatives within the Republican Party and the party's substantial statehouse gains in 2010. The second is the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority. A 2007 opinion that upheld a federal law barring late-term abortions by a 5-4 vote gave antiabortion activists the sense that the John Roberts court would allow more restrictions, and they want to test those limits.
These are scary times for women who care about their right to bodily autonomy, especially those of us who live in the South where the bulk of these laws are being passed.
The current Supreme Court could just as easily cement a rollback of privacy rights than reinforce precedents that have protected women for nearly 50 years.
This term, the Supreme Court may take up a challenge to a 2011 Oklahoma law involving RU-486. The case asks whether lawmakers can substitute their judgment for that of doctors.
Lawmakers in Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas and several other states, though not Florida, have passed laws prohibiting doctors from chemically inducing abortions using the latest medical techniques because they diverge from the original FDA protocols.
Clinical trials since the 2000 protocols were established have altered the procedure. Doctors now prescribe mifepristone, or RU-486 — the only specifically approved abortion drug — and an additional drug, misoprostol, for medical abortions. Also, mifepristone is given in lower doses. And the drug methotrexate is used to treat ectopic pregnancies.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization, the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol used in tandem are a safer and more effective alternative to the FDA-approved process.
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The drive for these laws reflects how chemically induced abortions are a threat to antiabortion activism. Women who take pills are, in a sense, their own abortionist. They are not victims of some predatory abortion doctor, as the movement tries to claim. And when women don't go to a clinic for their medical abortion, they are more difficult to target with prolife messaging.
The fight over these laws is now in the courts. It comes down to whether effectively banning chemically induced abortions is an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose. Last year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said it was and set aside the law. It further clarified that ruling Tuesday.
This contrasts with federal courts that have upheld similar measures in Texas and Ohio. The Supreme Court has tentatively agreed to take up the appeal of the Oklahoma ruling.
If these laws are approved, expect more states to adopt them.
Conservative lawmakers who are so quick to condemn government interference in health care under the Affordable Care Act seem to think nothing of denying women a procedure embraced by the entire medical establishment.
The laws will push more women into having surgical abortions rather than receiving drugs in the comfort of a doctor's office. An intellectually honest court would say this is an unconstitutional incursion on a woman's rights.