What Delayed RU-486?

Ten years ago, the media was full of news about the new wonder drug RU 486. TV, women’’s magazines, newspapers were all praising it. The pressure was on. It was legal in France, Britain and Sweden. Roussel Uclaf, its maker, was on public record wanting to bring it to the U.S.

Pro-lifers opposed it, but were our voices being heard? By 1992, it still hadn’t been licensed, but then President Clinton gave it the highest priority, telling his FDA Commissioner to invite the drug people to Washington and get the drug approved.

On a fast track? It seemed so, but this is seven long years after that, and only now do we hear it will be approved. What happened? What stopped it? It was stopped by an unheralded trip in December 1990 to Europe by a group of dedicated pro-life leaders. To understand, we reprint Dr. Willke’’s President’s Column from January 8, 1991, while president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).

If there is any one element in the controversy over RU 486 that has completely gotten lost, it is that there is widespread opposition to its introduction in this country from major institutions, organizations and social action groups.

Recently we were able to communicate that important message firsthand and to the right people. Last month I was privileged to lead a prestigious delegation representing nine major church, conservative, women’s and social action groups which went to Europe. We met with the companies that produce the abortion drugs (both RU 486 itself and prostaglandins which are used with RU 486). That took us to Berlin, Frankfurt and Paris. Our message was loud and clear, and I believe got through to all four companies. It was that men and women representing over 100 million Americans are strongly, passionately opposed to the French abortion pill.

Several recent developments were very worrisome. The pro-aborts have made a number of trips to Europe, working overtime to convince the drug companies that only a handful of “noisy right-to-lifers” opposed the drug’s introduction here. I didn’t know what the companies believed, but became increasingly convinced that we must make sure such lies did not go uncontested. How to do that?

I myself had personally visited with top officials of Roussel Uclaf in Paris one year ago. They knew very well what the opinion of the right-to-life groups in America was. What was now needed was not a repeat visit from pro-life groups. The most effective route would be if representatives of major constituencies, which were pro-life but had other issue concerns besides abortion, visited the companies.

And so I consulted with the chief executive officers of a number of major churches and other organizations about a delegation of us visiting the companies in Europe. A consensus was quickly reached. It was immediate, vigorous and enthusiastic. Every single leader whom I talked to was strongly opposed to RU 486. Dr. Richard Glasow, NRLC education director, and myself had been the “spear carriers” on the public cutting edge of opposition to the pill through the NRL News and interviews with major media. Other groups had not had such intense involvement, but their hearts were there.

Largely due to the hard work of Dr. Glasow, a date was agreed upon. It was two weeks before Christmas. Even though this cut deeply into all of our personal lives, everyone went with enthusiasm and dedication. First, three of us visited Schering A.G. in Berlin, which sells a prostaglandin drug that is used with RU 486. They also are doing research on two anti-progestin drugs similar to RU 486. Then, in Frankfurt, our entire party met with five top officials of Hoechst, A.G., which holds a majority share in Roussel Uclaf, the French company which actually manufactures RU 486. In Paris we first met with officials of Rhone-Poulenc, which owned a 35% interest in Roussel Uclaf and also has a prostaglandin on the market. Finally, we met with two of the top officials of Roussel Uclaf for almost three hours. The pattern of the meetings was similar.

In each case, we were received with handshakes, introductions, coffee, etc. There were eleven in our party. The number of company officials ranged from two to five. Typically, we sat at a U-shaped or quadrangular table so that everyone could see everyone else. Each person briefly introduced him or herself and the organization they represented. Then I would make a short statement as to why we had come.

Our intent was to acquaint the company with the breadth and depth of the opposition to the abortion pill in the United States. Then, each delegate spoke for five to eight minutes, giving in some detail who he/she was, their position in their organization, the size, scope and outreach of the organization or church that he/she represented, and the intensity of the anti-abortion commitment of their group. Each detailed their anti-abortion activities, resolutions, etc., the number of people in their church or organization, number of subscribers to their publications, of stations upon which they broadcast, etc. In short, each of the delegates told in a measured professional fashion about the organization they represented, its strength and its determination to do whatever was needed to prevent the abortion pill from coming to America.

In no specific order of importance, let me go around that circle. Usually Dr. Richard Land started us off. He is the executive director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He explained that his was not only a Southern but, in fact, a national denomination, with almost 15 million members, and that he also spoke on behalf of a large number of the additional 11 million Baptists in America on the abortion issue. He very forcefully made the point that introduction of the abortion pill into the U.S. would ignite a “firestorm” of opposition.

Next, Professor Carl Anderson, a vice president of the Knights of Columbus, who explained that Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant had wanted to come but that his schedule could not permit it. Professor Anderson explained that his organization had 1_ million members, almost all of whom were heads of households. He spoke of their vigorous opposition to this pill and of a specific resolution condemning it recently passed.

I then read a very strong letter from Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. After his letter, several others around the circle commented on the strength of the Catholic opposition to abortion and to the abortion pill.

Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, had wanted to come, but at that time was at a meeting in Nicaragua with President Chamarro. She sent Mrs. Laurie Trefiates, who made an excellent presentation, noting that CWA has 600,000 members compared with the NOW organization’s 220,000. She spoke of CWA’s activities and of the fact that frequently one or more of their members are the seeds that can activate entire congregations.

Mrs. Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum, discussed her own organization which is generally credited with defeating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment which would have put the right to abortion squarely in the Constitution. She detailed the political and legislative achievements of the Pro-Life Movement.
I then would read a letter from Dr. Robert Dugan, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals. His organization represents 45,000 churches and almost 15 million people. The letter detailed in the clearest possible way the determined opposition of the vast majority of churches that it represents.

Mr. Tom Minnery, vice president of Focus on the Family, was with us to represent the president, Dr. James Dobson, whose recent health problems kept him in California. Mr. Minnery quietly outlined the scope of “Focus” – its major radio outreach, books, periodicals, and its ability to mobilize people to action. He left no doubt as to their position on the abortion pill.

Dr. Jean Garton represented the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, adding that she also spoke for the pro-life sentiments of several smaller Lutheran churches. She detailed their extensive school system and noted that, in the past, members of her church had not been very politically active. The issue of the abortion pill, however, “has galvanized our people,” she said. In her quiet, charming, but very professional fashion, she delivered a very strong message.

Dr. Glasow then would speak about some of the activities of NRLC’s office and of a book that Dr. Curtis Harris and I are writing on RU 486 that will be published shortly. He spoke of TV and other interviews of us and of our intensive coverage of RU 486 in the NRL News.

I then read a letter from Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries. He could not join us but sent a letter. His observations opposing RU 486 I believe accurately conveyed not only his own ministry’s sentiments, but also the overwhelming preponderance of opinion in the religious broadcasting community which consists of over 1,500 radio stations and 300 television stations.

Mr. William Sherwin, secretary of the International Right to Life Federation, the only non-American there, added some direct comments about the fact that if the American position in opposition were galvanized into activity, it would stimulate similar activity throughout the world.

Two doctors finished up. Dr. Joe McIlhaney, an infertility specialist, represented the American Academy of Medical Ethics. He is also a board member of the Christian Medical and Dental Society and a frequent consultant on radio and TV. His comments were followed by those of Dr. Carolyn Gerster, former president of National Right to Life and practicing cardiologist in Arizona. Between the two of them, they very succinctly enumerated what many in the the medical community feel about RU 486. They pointed out the many complications associated with RU 486 and the negative impact that promotion of abortion would have on the reputations of the four companies.

After this very impressive testimony, I would wrap up by noting that the people in the room who had come to visit this drug company represented in excess of 100 million people in the United States. We then would go into an open question-and-answer session, during which time I’m sure that both the drug officials and ourselves learned details and opinions that we had not fully understood in the past. We established some new lines of communications. We agreed to send certain detailed information to each other and to provide documentation for things that had been said. We all agreed that at least some of us would be meeting again.

No one can say what the drug companies will do. What we can say for sure is that the myth of “limited opposition” to RU 486 has been completely shattered. Equally important, this gathering served to stimulate the members of the delegation to even greater and more visible opposition to RU 486 within their own organizations.

The above was my President’s Column written after this December 1990 meeting. Back then, we hoped that it would result in some delay in the introduction of RU 486 into the U.S. Little did we know the profound effect it would have. It is now apparent that this caused these drug companies to slam the brakes on distributing it.

Since then, in their public statements they have continued to repeat their deep concerns about adverse public reaction if the drug was licensed. Clearly, the impact of these meetings was to throw a wrench in their gears, an impact that is still being felt today.

Let me once again give my undying thanks to those generous people who gave of themselves to accompany me on this journey. Only now is this human pesticide finally coming to the U.S.

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