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Friday September 29, 2000

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Abortion drug approved in America but absent at UA

By Rebecca Missel

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Drug is safe and effective procedure, UMC doctor says

The Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved the use of mifepristone, a drug that terminates pregnancy in the first seven weeks, but it will not be available on campus.

In 1972, the university signed an agreement with the Arizona State Legislature, stating that in order to obtain funds for the Arizona Stadium, UMC cannot provide abortions.

"It's a hot political potato," said Dr. Thomas Purdon, associate professor and department vice chair in obstetrics and gynecology at the University Medical Center.

"We would not provide the drug, but we could refer patients to a suitable provider," he said.

Contrary to the "morning-after" pill, which is a form of emergency contraception, mifepristone is 92 to 95 percent effective in inducing abortion in early pregnancy.

Also known as RU-486, the drug has been used in France, Britain, Sweden and China. More than 620,000 women in Europe have terminated pregnancies since 1988 when the drug was approved in France.

The pill should be available in the United States under the brand name Mifeprex in about a month.

"The good news is that the drug provides a safe, early procedure that prevents surgery," said Purdon, who is also the president-elect of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

"From that standpoint, it's good for the state of women in general," he said.

Even though the medication would not be available at Campus Health Services or UMC, Purdon said he thought women would be responsible with the drug when they get it from other Tucson-area clinics.

"Hopefully, it wouldn't change the fact that women still need to take adequate responsibility for contraception," he said. "It should redouble everyone's efforts to be responsible."

Fewer incidents of violence at abortion clinics, fewer physicians offering late-term abortions, and enhanced privacy between patient and physician add to the positive effects of the drug's approval, Purdon said.

Mifepristone works with other drugs in a special regimen. First, a woman takes 600 milligrams of mifepristone by mouth.

Two days later, she takes 400 micrograms of misoprostol, a drug that causes contractions in the uterus. The side effects of the drug include cramping and bleeding similar to a miscarriage.

Twelve days later, the woman must return to her doctor to ensure the pregnancy has been terminated. If not, the doctor must provide a surgical abortion.

Medical guidelines specifically state that doctors must meet special qualifications in order to prescribe mifepristone. First, they must be able to determine the duration of the pregnancy since the drug is only effective in the early stages. Second, the doctor must have the expertise to determine if a ectopic, or tubal, pregnancy has occurred. Third, the doctor must provide surgical intervention if the drug fails.

The FDA also requires that patients read an information brochure and sign an agreement before starting the regimen.

Prices for mifepristone have yet to be determined by the distributors.

"I believe in a woman's right to choose, but this approval will open up more options for women," said Sam de Dios, president of Alpha Epsilon Delta, a pre-medical student honorary. "It will make the procedure less scary."

Both undergraduate students and those currently enrolled in medical school should be taught about abortion in both medicinal and surgical forms, de Dios said.

"We deal with this as a society," she said. "Even if you are against it, abortion still happens, and it is possible that your patients will want to know."

After receiving initial proposals for mifepristone in September 1996, the FDA considered the drug a priority review. The agency responded to Population Council, the drug's sponsor, within the requisite six-month deadline and requested further research.

A new deadline was set for the end of this month, and Danco Laboratories of New York, the distributors, gained the approval letter on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the FDA said.

The Arizona Daily Wildcat could not include the spokeswoman's name because FDA Commissioner Jane Henney wanted to keep their names secret in order to avoid anti-abortion violence.

Nick Wesoky, a communication senior, said the drug is a good idea but not everyone would be responsible with it.

"It's a good invention, but there are people who would abuse it," he said. "Lazy people might use this as a form of contraception instead of a condom or birth control pills."

However, Wesoky said mifepristone can help women.

"If I were a female who had been raped and gotten pregnant, I would rather take a pill than have a doctor inside of me," he said.

Sarah Schmidt, business sophomore, said that the drug would help ease the emotional difficulty of getting an abortion.

"I don't think it will affect how women look at abortion because it is such a hard decision," she said. "It's hard enough for women to go through abortion, let alone the physical process - this could be beneficial."