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RU 486, also known as the "abortion pill," is considered one of the most controversial medical breakthroughs of recent times. (Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy and expulsion of the embryo or fetus from the uterus.) The pill was developed by French biochemist Etienne-Emile Baulieu (1926-). Baulieu spent more than 30 years researching hormones. A highly respected researcher, Baulieu co-founded the International Society for Research in Biology and Reproduction. He received international attention in 1988 when RU 486 was introduced to the public.

How RU 486 Works

RU 486 is an "antihormone" which blocks the effects of progesterone. Progesterone is a hormone that allows an embryo to develop in the uterus. RU 486 causes the fertilized egg and uterine lining to separate from the uterine wall. They are then both expelled through the vagina.

After developing the RU 486 steroid (fat soluble compound) in 1980, scientists conducted numerous tests on animals. The drug was found to be nontoxic. In 1985 extensive tests on human volunteers were carried out in five different countries. RU 486 was found to be safe and effective. It is designed for use in the first eight weeks of pregnancy. When a low dose of the hormone-like substance, prostaglandin, was given following RU 486, the success rate for pregnancy termination rose to 96 percent.


In September 1988 RU 486 was approved for use in France (where abortion has been legal since 1975). Only one month after its introduction, the manufacturer of RU 486, Roussel-UCLAF, withdrew the drug from the market because anti-abortion activists had threatened a boycott of the company's products. In response to rising protests from members of the World Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the French government then ordered the company to release the drug to state-controlled clinics. Within a year, about one-fourth to one-third of all early abortions in France were conducted with RU 486.

Baulieu staunchly defends his invention as a safe option for women who choose to end a pregnancy. He calls RU 486 a "contragestion" medication. Among its benefits are the fact that it is more private pregnancy termination option that poses far fewer medical risks than surgical abortion procedures.

In September 1989 Baulieu was given the Albert Lasker Award for his work. Following the death of a French woman who had used RU 486 in 1991, Baulieu introduced further refinements that he says make the drug safer. Because of its controversial nature and despite its safety, RU 486 is still not legal for use in many countries in the world, although it may soon be legally available in the United States.

[See also Birth control ; Sex hormones ]