It took twelve years for the FDA to approve mifepristone--also known as RU-486--and most of that time had less to do with medicine than with the politics of abortion. Still, the late-September decision was a tremendous victory for American women. In approving RU-486, the FDA showed that science and good sense can still carry the day, even in an election year.
The long delay may even backfire against the drug's opponents. In 1988, when mifepristone was legalized in France, it was a medical novelty as well as a political flashpoint. Today, it's been accepted in thirteen countries, including most of Western Europe; it's been taken by more than a half-million women and studied, it sometimes seems, by almost as many researchers. By the end of the approval process, the important medical professional organizations--the AMA, the American Medical Women's Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists--had given mifepristone their blessing; impressive percentages of Ob-Gyns and family practitioners said they would consider prescribing it; thousands of US women had taken it in clinical trials and given it high marks, with 97 percent in one study saying they would recommend it to a friend. Against this background of information and experience, the antichoicers' attempt to raise fears about the drug's safety sounds desperate and insincere.
In a normal country, RU-486 would simply be another abortion method, its use a matter of personal preference (in France it's the choice of 20 percent of women who have abortions, while in Britain only 6 percent opt for it). But in the United States, where abortion clinics are besieged by fanatics and providers wear bulletproof vests, mifepristone's main significance lies in its potential to widen access to abortion, especially in those 86 percent of US counties that possess no abortion clinic, by making it private--doctors unable or unwilling to perform surgical abortions could prescribe it, and women could take it at home.
It is unlikely, however, that Mifeprex, as the drug will be known when it comes on the market, will prove to be the magic bullet that ends the war on abortion by depriving antichoice activists of identifiable targets. The nation has been retreating from Roe v. Wade for a quarter-century, and a good portion of the patchwork of state and local regulations intended to discourage surgical abortion will apply to Mifeprex as well: parental notification and consent laws (thirty-two states), waiting periods (nineteen states), biased counseling and cumbersome reporting and zoning requirements. States in which antichoicers control the legislatures will surely rush to encumber Mifeprex with hassles, and small-town and rural physicians in particular may find it hard to prescribe Mifeprex without alerting antichoice activists. Doctors are a cautious bunch, and the anticipated flood of new providers may turn out to be a trickle, at least at first. Abortion rights activists should also brace themselves for a backlash from their hard-core foes: Just after the FDA's decision was announced, a Catholic priest crashed his car into an Illinois abortion clinic and hacked at the building with an ax.
But in the long run, Mifeprex will make abortion more acceptable. In poll after poll Americans have said that when it comes to terminating a pregnancy, the earlier the better. Mifeprex, which has been approved for the first forty-nine days after a woman's last menstrual period--when the embryo's size varies from a pencil point to a grain of rice--may well prove not to arouse the same kinds of anxieties and moral qualms as surgical abortion. Then, too, Americans are used to taking pills. That, of course, is what the antichoicers are afraid of.
A new poll has found that strong majorities of Americans have high levels of interest and concern about a range of issues that are rarely being discussed in the current political campaign. And on several key issues where candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore basically agree--the benefits of international trade and increased military spending relative to other priorities, for instance--the public does not.
The poll, commissioned by The Nation magazine and the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that:
§ Despite the booming economy many Americans worry about the disenfranchised: they show concern for the many Americans without health insurance (91%) and the gaps between rich and poor (74%). An overwhelming majority (81%) supports an increase in the minimum wage.
§ While both candidates express enthusiasm for the growth of international trade, a huge majority of voters (83%) wants to see this growth moderated by other goals--protecting workers, the environment and human rights--even if this means slowing the growth of the economy.
§ While both candidates are speaking in favor of increases in defense spending, a strong majority (63%) is interested in the possibility of redirecting defense funds to education and other priorities.
§ A clear majority considers it "very important" or "somewhat important" for the candidates to debate some of the foreign policy issues that are rarely being discussed, such as the comprehensive test ban treaty (80%) and contributing to international peacekeeping operations (86%). An equally strong majority (81%) wants the United States to work with other countries through the United Nations.
"These results suggest a disconnect between the rhetoric of the political campaign and the reality of public concerns," says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.
The poll was conducted in late September by the Center on Public Attitudes (COPA), an independent social science research center closely associated with the University of Maryland. It asked questions that had been asked in previous polls over the last several years by the Pew Research Center; ABC News; the Center's own Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA, a joint program with the Center on Strategicl and Internationa Studies at the University of Maryland); Newsweek; and CBS News/New York Times.
These questions were asked again to see if the current political campaign has made much difference in public attitudes. Surprisingly, The Nation/IPS poll found that voter views and levels of interest on these issues are generally about as strong as they were in mid-1999--even though many of the issues tested received scant attention during the last 12 months of intensive campaigning.
"Despite the assurances of politicians that times have never been better at home and that globally we're in a new era of Pax Americana, we see that a majority of voters are, in poll after poll, worried by unfettered free trade, growing inequality at home and abroad, and U.S. unilateralism. They are out ahead of one or both of candidates Bush and Gore in believing fair trade is more important than free trade, supporting cuts in military spending and reinvesting in other programs, and wanting the U.S. to play by the rules through the United Nations," says John Cavanagh, Director of the Institute for Policy Studies.]]> ]]> ]]> ]]>
On the eve of the first presidential debate, a new poll has found that strong majorities of Americans have high levels of interest and concern about a range of issues that are rarely being discussed in the current campaign. And on several key issues where candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore basically agree--the benefits of international trade and increased military spending relative to other priorities, for instance--the public does not. The poll, commissioned by The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies, found that:
§ Americans are concerned about the disfranchised, including the many without health insurance (91 percent) and gaps between rich and poor (74 percent). A large majority (81 percent) supports an increase in the minimum wage.
§ Both candidates express enthusiasm for the growth of international trade, but 83 percent of the public wants trade combined with other goals--protecting workers, the environment and human rights--even if it means a slowing economy.
§ Both candidates favor increases in military spending, but a strong majority of the public (63 percent) is interested in redirecting some military funds to education and other needs.
§ A clear majority (80 percent) wants debate on foreign policy issues like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; 81 percent say they want the United States to work with other countries through the United Nations.
Majority views and levels of interest on these issues are generally about as strong as they were in mid-1999, even though many of the issues tested have been out of the spotlight over the past twelve months of campaigning.
The poll was conducted by the Center on Policy Attitudes, an independent social science research center. For full results: www.thenation.com, www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org or www.ips-dc.org. Or call IPS: (202) 234-9382, ext. 258.