RU-486 - a Pill, Not an Answer

IT all sounded so simple when abortion-rights advocates recruited Leona Benten to bring the unapproved abortion drug RU-486 into the United States. According to their plan, Ms. Benten would fly from California to England, where the pills are legal. Then she would fly back to New York, challenging the government's ban on the French drug. If all went as the group hoped, Benten, who is unmarried, would use the pills to end her unplanned pregnancy.

But nothing is ever simple when the subject is abortion. Customs agents confiscated the pills at Kennedy International Airport. Benten sued to get them back. Then, with one eye on the courts and the other on the calendar, she waited while judges all the way to the Supreme Court considered her case, ultimately ruling against her.

Every radical cause needs leaders who are willing to take risks and speak out for the changes they seek. In that sense, Benten is probably a suitable test plaintiff to challenge the US ban on RU-486. As a social worker and a committed feminist, she is intelligent and articulate. Calling herself the "front person," she says simply, "Somebody needed to do it."

But in another sense, Benten appears to be a less-than-suitable "somebody" if abortion-rights leaders hope to win support for their attempts to make the drug legal.

Although no outsider will ever know the anguish that probably went into Benten's decision to terminate her pregnancy, there is something cavalier and disquieting about the way her explanations come across in print. Her case promises to do little to bring reason to the shrill confrontation of picket lines.

Benten admits that this is her second abortion. The first, which took place nine years ago when she was 20, was a "much easier" decision to make, she has said, because she was young. Although she concedes that this year's decision was more complicated, she still considers herself unready - or at least unwilling - to take responsibility for a baby.

"I thought about having a child, and it just didn't make sense," she told The New York Times. "It just wouldn't work. The father is of a different culture. It was not possible to raise the child together, and it wouldn't be responsible to raise the child on my own, in my culture."

As for the abortion itself, Benten leaped at the possibility of using RU-486 because, as she told another reporter, "I don't like surgery.... I believe in self-determination, so I'd much rather take a pill than put myself in the hands of someone who's going to do a procedure on me."

Although the long-term side effects of RU-486 are still unknown, activists say it is only a matter of time before the pills are available in the United States. The inventor himself has stated that determined women will find ways to obtain the drug, which is legal only in France and Britain.

But making abortion easier and more private only heightens the need to make it less common. At a time when more than 1.6 million abortions are performed every year in the US, the debate still centers largely around keeping abortion legal, rather than reducing the need for it.

Where, for instance, is the serious, sustained discussion about improving the availability and reliability of birth-control measures?

Where is the discussion about changing moral attitudes, beyond the current vague and heated rhetoric about "family values"?

And where is the discussion about increasing couples' responsibility, which is a shared obligation that begins long before a woman ends up visiting a clinic or taking a pill?

Even the heated debate about distributing condoms in high schools centers more around "safe sex" - protecting students against AIDS - than around avoiding pregnancy, although more than a million teenagers become pregnant every year.

The terms of the abortion debate must be broadened, with both sides considering the same urgent issue: How to prevent unwanted pregnancies rather than simply dealing, for better or worse, with their consequences.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Gov. Bill Clinton got to the heart of the matter when he said, "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare."

Last month the Supreme Court affirmed that abortion is still legal, although with increasing restrictions. Now it is up to everyone else - women and men alike - to make it rare.

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