RU 486 - New Technology, Old Choices

EVER since the French government gave its approval last year to a new ``abortion'' pill called RU 486, feminist organizations in the United States have been demanding legal access to the drug. Noting that the French minister of health has called the pill ``the moral property of women,'' groups such as the Fund for the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women are urging their members to make the drug a ``top priority'' of the women's movement. For now the French manufacturer, Roussel-Uclaf, refuses to market the drug outside France, fearing boycotts and legal action by pro-life groups. Anti-abortion activists have called RU 486 the ``death pill'' and ``chemical war against babies.''

At the same time, pro-choice groups warn that if the drug is not made available legally a black market will inevitably spring up. If that happens, some activists worry about the dangers of misuse, since the pill's effectiveness is limited to the first seven weeks of pregnancy. It has also produced known side effects in a small percentage of women.

Whatever the relative advantages or disadvantages of RU 486, much of the publicity about it in this country has tended to oversimplify, even romanticize, the drug. The popular view holds that a woman can simply pop a pill in the privacy of her own home and presto! - no more pregnancy.

In reality, RU 486 users in France must undergo a four-step procedure. First, a woman submits to a physical exam and a pregnancy test. A week later, at a clinic or hospital licensed to perform abortions, she is given three tablets of RU 486. Within two or three days she returns to receive an injection of a synthetic hormone. Finally, eight to 12 days later, she is required to have a doctor's exam to be sure the procedure is complete. The cost is comparable to that of a surgical abortion.

Whenever technology creates new products, language must grow and change to accommodate new terms and ideas. Think of the computer, which has made words like ``modem,'' ``software,'' ``interface,'' and ``downtime'' part of everyday speech.

Similarly, RU 486 promises to expand the vocabulary on reproductive issues, albeit in chilling ways. Dr. Etienne-Emile Baulieu, the inventor of the drug, calls it a ``contragestive'' - a term derived from ``contra-gestation'' in the same way that ``contraceptive'' is derived from ``contra-conception.'' Others sometimes refer to it as an ``abortifacient.''

Then there are the euphemisms. Dr. Baulieu insists his research ``is not aimed at gaining women abortions,'' but at ``helping them control gestation.''

Other new phrases are sprinkled through the pages of an information packet put out by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project in Washington, D.C., whose purpose is to foster public awareness of the drug. The group refers to RU 486 as ``a new generation of reproductive health technology.'' These drugs ``cross the threshold into a new era of fertility control'' and offer ``a medical alternative for early pregnancy interruption.''

How simple, how matter-of-fact it all sounds - as though impersonal technology could erase the emotion, the anguish that surrounds the human choices and decisions accompanying abortion. But call it reproductive doubletalk - and beware.

In his new book, ``Doublespeak,'' William Lutz writes about language that makes ``the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility. ... It is language that conceals or prevents thought.''

Proponents argue that RU 486, properly administered and controlled, offers a solution for some women. They point out that in the third world an estimated 200,000 women die of botched or self-induced abortions every year.

But even if this new technology lives up to all its claims, there are other considerations. The complexities - moral, legal, political, even linguistic - surrounding the drug should serve as reminders that no magic pills, no euphemisms can resolve the most profound issues of human procreation. Simply changing the language will not alter the fact that an abortion by any other name - fertility control, gestation control, early pregnancy interruption - is still an abortion.

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