Leading family planning and 'pro-choice' groups in the UK, France and Germany are lending support to demands that Hoechst, a major shareholder in Roussel, which makes RU486, withdraws its opposition to the sale of the drug in the US immediately. They believe that US approval will pave the way for safe, non-surgical abortions for women world-wide.
Professor Etienne Baulieu, the inventor of the drug, told a conference in Frankfurt, Germany, at the weekend that Hoechst was also under pressure from other drug companies which are asking to buy the rights to supply RU486 in the US.
Hoechst has opposed a product licence application for RU486 on the grounds that the US political climate was not right. There have been threats of a boycott of Hoechst products, which include plastics, dyes and agro-chemicals, by 'pro-life' activists. Similar threats led to a withdrawal of RU486 for a time in France. The drug was reintroduced there in January 1989 after the French government said it would pass the patent rights to another company unless it was reinstated.
Women's rights activists, 'pro- choice' groups and some doctors say that the political climate in America has changed and that thousands of women are being denied the drug because of the company's intransigence. They point out that Bill Clinton, the president-elect, has indicated his support for RU486.
Professor Baulieu said: 'Hoechst has the right not to develop a product which doesn't fit in with what it sees as its medical mission. But if they don't use it when it has been shown to be safe and useful, there is a moral obligation on them to license it to someone else.'
Professor Baulieu said US acceptance would mean speedy approval for RU486 in many other countries, including Germany.
Dr Halfdan Mahler, secretary general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, told the conference: 'Since they are so embarrassed by holding the patent for RU486, why don't they give it away.' A non-profit organisation would be a suitable candidate, 'otherwise women in developing countries will have to wait for decades'.
Professor Wolfgang Hilger, chairman of Hoechst, will today receive an open letter from RU486 supporters in the UK, Europe and the US, who attended the conference. They express 'grave concern with Hoechst's stubborn refusal to apply for a product licence for RU486 in those countries in which abortion is lawful'.
British signatories include the Birth Control Trust and the Pro Choice Alliance. Both Hoechst and Roussel were unavailable for comment yesterday.
RU486 works by blocking the hormone progesterone which is needed to maintain pregnancy. The drug was introduced here in July 1991, but so far it has been taken by fewer than 3,000 women, which is thousands less than was expected, according to the Birth Control Trust.
The trust blames widespread ignorance among family doctors of the drug's availability and the reluctance of NHS hospitals to adapt their gynaecological units for its use.
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