News that the Marie Stopes clinic in London has been authorised by the Department of Health to offer the drug to American women has rekindled a long-running controversy over the use of RU-486 here. Anti-abortion groups are campaigning to keep the pill off the US market; the pro-choice camp says women have a moral right to use it.
Renewed interest in the pill coincides with other developments helping to re-ignite the already passionate abortion debate in America. Today jury selection starts in the trial in Pensacola, Florida, of Michael Griffith, who is charged with murdering an abortion doctor, David Gunn, last March.
Last month, meanwhile, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that groups anti-abortion activists who take physical action to disrupt abortion clinics or intimidate women seeking to terminate pregnancies with all other political terrorists and criminal extremists. The penalties for such action are consequently likely to become much more severe.
Pamela Maraldo, the president of the pro-choice Planned Parenthood organisation, speaking of the decision on RU-486, declared: 'We're ecstatic. It's delightful that RU-486 is going to be available in Britain, but it's still unacceptable that something so safe and effective would require a trip across the Atlantic.'
Anyone hoping to attend the Stopes clinic from here will have to make a considerable investment of time and money. Apart from the plane ticket, they will have to pay roughly dollars 500 ( pounds 340) for the treatment, which will require the patient to spend one night in the clinic and to remain in London for almost two weeks for observation. 'It doesn't do much good to poor women to know it's available in London,' Ms Maraldo conceded.
The pill, which is marketed in Britain under the name Mifegyne, is made by the French Roussel- Uclaf company. Since its introduction in France six years ago it has become a popular alternative to surgical abortions. The only other countries where it has so far been approved are Britain and Sweden.
The Clinton administration has indicated it would favour approval of the drug in the US. Roussel-Uclaf and the non-profit Population Council in New York have been trying to find a US company that could make the pill under licence and market it in this country. Roussel-Uclaf's parent, Hoechst of Germany, is said to be nervous about the reaction of anti-abortion forces if a deal is reached, and the possibility of a boycott of all its products.
Groups against abortion rights have lobbied doctors and law-makers with a postcard campaign to resist the introduction of RU-486 in the US.