Republican leaders vow to hinder availability of RU-486

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Gore, Clinton defend approval of abortion pill

By Catalina Camia and Charles Ornstein / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Approval of the abortion pill RU-486 touched off a political firestorm Thursday, engulfing the major-party presidential candidates, the White House and Congress.

On Capitol Hill, conservative Republicans denounced the Food and Drug Administration's decision and vowed to reduce or even block the drug's availability.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Irving said the Republican-led Congress would "reach out every way that the legislative process makes available to us," including possibly attaching a provision to the bill that funds the FDA to block any federal money from being used to distribute the drug.

Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a practicing physician who has delivered more than 3,500 babies in his career, said he will introduce a bill next week that would require "patient protections," including limiting distribution of RU-486 to licensed physicians with certain qualifications and creating a registry of doctors who provide the drug. The FDA originally proposed such a list but decided against it after doctors' groups voiced opposition.

"Never before has the FDA approved a drug intended to kill people," Dr. Coburn said. "Although we have failed to block approval of RU-486 this Congress, we will do everything in our power to ensure that this pill only kills one person instead of two." Dr. Coburn said that he is concerned that women could die from side effects of the pill.

At the White House, President Clinton defended the FDA's action. "This administration treated that issue as purely one of science and medicine," he said before a Cabinet meeting. "And the decision to be made under our law is whether the drug should be approved by the FDA on grounds of safety. And I think that they have bent over backwards to do a lot of serious inquiries."

"I regret that some members of the other party apparently have already tried to politicize it."

The debate spilled over into the presidential race with George W. Bush calling the approval wrong and Al Gore saying he was pleased with the announcement.

"Today's decision is not about politics but the health and safety of American women and a woman's fundamental right to choose," Mr. Gore said.

Mr. Bush recently suggested that he would reject the FDA's approval if elected president. On Thursday, his spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged that the president does not have such authority.

"As president, he would want a careful review to make sure the FDA considered all the risks and did not do this as a result of political pressure from the White House," he said.

Tough to unravel

One legal expert said it would be very difficult for anyone to remove the drug from the market now that the FDA has approved it. To do so, the FDA must show that new information has come to light about the drug's harm, and the manufacturer must be given a chance to appeal.

"You can't unravel a license just because your politics have changed," said Lars Noah, a visiting law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "This is now property that has constitutional protection."

Both abortion-rights advocates and opponents say Thursday's decision will help galvanize their movements just weeks before the election.

"It's a stark reminder of how contentious this issue is politically and how very much unsettled it is that we would have such a tremendous advance for women's health followed immediately by attempts to restrict or roll back that advance," said Nina Miller of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. "It's not unexpected, but it is striking."

Opponents were already upset about rules released last month by the National Institutes of Health that allow federally funded scientists to conduct research on human embryo cells.

"I can say we will keep our options open as far as pursuing anything through legal, peaceful means," said Laura Echevarria, a spokeswoman for National Right to Life. "What form it takes, at this point in time, it would be a little early to say."

Not giving up

Republicans said their fight would not end. "There are going to be a great many people across this country who love life and whose hearts are touched by these helpless children that are going to regret this decision," Mr. Armey said.

Democratic lawmakers said their political opponents should stop trying to end legalized abortion. Since the GOP took control in 1995, Democratic lawmakers said, the House has voted 130 times to restrict abortion.

"I want Congress to take off its white coats and quit playing doctor," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.

"No amount of political energy is going to matter," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to the House. "Technology has trumped politics. There's no way now you're going to keep women from using RU-486."