Just two pills and a little pain: Alice has taken the French abortion drug, RU486. She talked to Imogen Edwards-Jones

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ALICE is 30 and a health worker at a family planning clinic. She became pregnant in July, when the 'morning-after' pill failed after 'an accident' with her boyfriend. At the beginning of September, at six weeks, she had an abortion using the French drug RU486, which can be used up to the ninth week. Alice was sure she was not ready for children. 'I had considered a surgical abortion, but I wanted to be in control. The last thing I could handle would be to have someone messing around inside me while I was asleep,' she explains.

The drug, introduced here in July 1991, has been given to fewer than 3,000 women despite success in France. The Birth Control Trust says many GPs are uninformed about it, and the costs of setting up suitable day-care centres are considered too high by the authorities. Alice heard about it at work.

She went to a private abortion clinic, where two doctors assessed her suitability. 'You're not allowed to use this method if you're overweight or a heavy smoker,' she explains. When her period was only two weeks overdue, Alice paid pounds 295 to go into a private Marie Stopes Clinic in London.

'You meet other women doing the same thing, and there is a chance to talk about it. The doctor gives you two tablets and you sit around for an hour or so, in case you throw them up. No one does, but it's a precaution. Then you can go home.'

There followed a two-day wait to give the drug time to take effect before returning to the clinic. Alice went back to work.

RU486 blocks the supply of progesterone, needed to maintain a pregnancy. 'About 50 per cent of people bleed after the first two pills,' says Alice. 'I began to bleed, like a heavy period, almost as soon as I left the clinic. I think I miscarried then. But apart from the bleeding, I felt pretty normal.'

Alice was sure about her decision to have a termination, but she believes the two-day wait before completing the process could play havoc on the emotions of the less convinced. 'Once you have taken those pills, there is no way back. That is explained to you in counselling, but I think that if you are not entirely sure of your choice, that's the time when you would really feel it - sitting around, waiting for it to be over. There were a couple of girls at the clinic who were pretty anxious.'

On returning to the clinic two days later, Alice was given a vaginal pessary to make her womb contract, causing her to miscarry. It can take several hours for the drug to work.

'Most of the women waiting were chatting and then popping off to the loo when the time came. For most people, the pain was curable by a couple of paracetamol, but two of us out of the seven were in quite considerable pain. Having been so sure that I wasn't going to suffer, I was the one who had to have the painkiller injection.'

The pain lasted for about an hour. 'It wasn't an emotionally traumatic experience. I am a practical person, I wasn't in emotional pain, it was just physical.' Although women are kept in the clinic for up to eight hours, most have miscarried within two. 'When I went home,' says Alice, 'I was still bleeding and the cramps continued for a few more hours. But I felt fine. I carried on bleeding for another 10 days or so, but that is like any other form of abortion, isn't it?'

Alice returned to the clinic a couple of weeks later for a scan and a check-up to see if everything had gone smoothly.

'Although I obviously don't want to go through the same thing again, I would recommend it to other women. It felt more natural than something invasive that involved dilation of the cervix.'

She believes RU486 has a considerable advantage over conventional abortion. 'You can take it almost as soon as you've missed a period. With surgery you have to wait because the foetus isn't large enough.'

As RU486 is so new, Alice feels the standard of care offered may be better than to patients having surgical abortions. 'They don't really have to look after you when you're out cold, do they?'