WITHIN as little time as 15 months, women in the United States will likely be able to end an unwanted pregnancy without having a surgical abortion.
Will this mean the end of the abortion debate as we know it? Hardly, say activists on both sides of the issue.
Still, the May 16 announcement that clinical trials of the abortion drug RU-486 will begin this fall in the US - and could be available for use sometime next year - is seen widely as a landmark in the nation's long, emotional struggle over abortion.
But abortion-rights supporters and opponents both stress that, because of the strict requirements for the use of RU-486, including close monitoring by a physician, and the drug's reported possible side-effects, there will not be a wholesale rush of women to use RU-486 instead of surgical abortion.
``It would be a mistake to view RU-486 as a panacea,'' says Marcie Wilder, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. ``Not all women can use or would choose this method. What's critical is that women have access to the full range of options.''
In France, 20 percent to 25 percent of abortions are performed with RU-486, David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told a congressional hearing May 16.
Anti-abortion groups avoided calling the RU-486 announcement a defeat. But Michelle Arrocha, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee, the nation's largest pro-life group, called it ``a very sad day for women. I fear the use of women as guinea pigs.''
``This is another challenge to the pro-life movement; this is not a defeat,'' says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League Inc. Mrs. Brown says her organization will do consciousness-raising about what RU-486 is - not a drug that prevents conception, but rather one that makes ``the mother's womb a hostile environment for an embryonic baby.''
Pro-life activists also suggest that the unusual decision by Roussel Uclaf, the developer of RU-486, to donate the drug's patent to a nonprofit organization, the Population Council, will not defuse a promised boycott of the French firm's parent company, the German-based Hoechst AG.
In an interview, a lawyer representing Roussel Uclaf, Lester Hyman, said that the company has kept RU-486 out of the US because of ``sensitivity of the abortion issue in the US.'' The company was also concerned that with a health-care system that is largely private and decentralized, it would be difficult to ensure that the drug is properly administered in the US.
The procedure entails at least three visits to a doctor over several days, which leaves open the possibility that a woman could receive the first drug and not the second drug that would complete the abortion. Roussel Uclaf states that it can be used only through the seventh week of pregnancy.
Ironically, the several-day process produces exactly the kind of inconvenience - particularly for rural women who sometimes must travel far to see a doctor - that pro-choice activists fought against with the introduction of waiting periods for surgical abortions in several states.
At the May 16 hearing, FDA Commissioner Kessler cited ``20 significant studies'' on RU-486 that the FDA can audit as it evaluates the drug.
The US trials slated to start this fall will involve 2,000 women at 12 sites.
The drug also has reputed applications for a number of diseases. Pro-life activists say they have never opposed the import of RU-486 for medical uses unrelated to abortion.