At his Senate confirmation hearing January 19, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson said he would order a new review of the abortion pill mifepristone (also known as RU-486). Last September, the Food and Drug Administration had approved the drug for use in the termination of early pregnancy.
“RU-486 is contentious and controversial, and the safety issues, as I understand, are in question. My job is to examine that,” Thompson said when Senator Hillary Clinton asked him if he would honor the FDA’s approval of the drug.
The fight to approve RU-486 has been fraught with controversy ever since it was first developed in 1980, by a French pharmaceutical company. France first gained access to the drug in 1988, and more than 620,000 women throughout Europe have since used it to end early pregnancies. Although the FDA called the drug “approvable” in 1996, it did not make the drug available in the U.S. until last year. Since November 2000, RU-486 has been available in the U.S. under the name Mifeprex.
In light of the drug’s unusually long testing history, reproductive rights groups view Thompson’s announcement as an effort to block women’s access to abortion. “Mifepristone has been proven to be safe. There is no reason [for Thompson] to do it except a political reason,” said Rosemary Dempsey, director of the Washington office of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. “Thompson’s history has been to attempt to deny women’s access to abortion—particularly, a form of abortion that could significantly reduce the amount of confrontation that one has to go through at clinics.”
When tapped by President George W. Bush to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Thompson had already established a strong anti-abortion record as governor of Wisconsin. In 1995 Thompson signed a law forbidding doctors from performing an abortion until the patient had undergone a 24-hour waiting period and been given information on topics including risks and fetus development. In 1998 he signed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, banning so-called “partial-birth” abortion under penalty of life imprisonment of the offending doctors; the law’s wording was so broad that even first-trimester abortions would have been illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court has since overturned the law.
Given the Bush administration’s fervent anti-abortion stance, abortion rights groups are concerned about the future of reproductive policy. With the FDA under his jurisdiction, Thompson could do more than delay and limit women’s access to mifepristone. As head of HHS, Thompson will also be responsible for overseeing the commissioner of the FDA, future research in reproductive technologies, and a spread of programs including Medicaid and Title X Family Planning, which provides family planning and reproductive health services to low-income women.