The pill, which also has potential as a contraceptive and as a possible treatment for breast cancer, has fallen victim to opposition from pro- life groups which believed, wrongly, that it opened the way for do-it- yourself abortions.
Hoechst, the giant German pharmaceutical company, ordered a French subsidiary to halt manufacture last year, partly as a result of threats by anti-abortion groups to boycott its other products. Sensitivity over the drug restricted promotion which in turn damaged profits. However, it emerged yesterday that the president of Hoechst, Wolfgang Hilger, is himself an opponent of abortion and had worries about the ethics of the drug.
Hoechst has transferred the patent rights to Dr Edouard Sakiz who was a member of the team which discovered the drug in 1982. He hopes to reach agreements with a number of small companies to resume production but several large companies have already turned him down because they do not wish to become a target for the pro-life lobby. Dr Sakiz, who has formed a new company, Exelgyn, specifically to market mifepristone, formerly known as RU 486, told the French newspaper Liberation yesterday that existing stocks for Britain, Sweden and France - the only European countries which authorise the use of the drug - will run out next winter. However, a spokeswoman for Exelgyn in the UK claimed a deal with a manufacturer had now been done and production was expected to resume in the autumn.
The pill has been a constant target of anti-abortion groups. Although it is legal in the US, it is not on sale there. No American drugs company has been willing to risk pro-life boycotts or other direct action.
The result is that it has never attained widespread use, despite its impressive potential. Part of the reason is that people thought that swallowing a pill opened the way to simple, do-it-yourself abortions at home. In fact, Mifepristone takes four to six hours to work and can only be taken under medical supervision in an abortion clinic, in case of side effects.
In 1996, it was used in 9,715 abortions in the UK, less than 6 per cent of the total. Surveys show up to one-third of women would choose the drug if offered it but it has never been widely promoted. Usage is wider in Scotland where it was first studied in the 1980s.
Mifepristone is also being researched as an emergency contraceptive, as a male contraceptive, and as a treatment for breast cancer and the bowel condition Crohn's disease. Ann Furedi, director of the Birth Control Trust, said: "If this product goes it is not just abortions but all these other potential applications that will be hit. We are all very nervous about it."Reuse content