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Supporters of the abortion drug RU-486, in their moment of triumph, are faced with opposition that could make their victory irrelevant. Abortion opponents are introducing bills in Congress to limit doctors' ability to prescribe the drug and state legislatures are proposing new laws to limit its availability. These measures must be fiercely opposed by the states and by Congress in order to ensure that RU-486 is an option for women in the United States.
The Supreme Court has routinely upheld a woman's right to choose since the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade in 1972. However, state legislatures have slowly chipped away at the practical right to abortion over the last 18 years by passing laws that make it difficult for women to gain access to abortions, or limit doctors' ability to perform them. These laws that were meant to place restrictions on surgical abortions are now, through new state legislation, being applied to RU-486. Some of these measures state the width of hallways in a doctor's office where surgical abortions are performed, how abortion providers must be registered and the disposal of fetal tissue. Not surprisingly, many doctors who initially said they would prescribe RU-486 are having second thoughts.
If enough of these doctors change their minds, the meaning of RU-486 to American women is lost. There are no abortion providers in 84 percent of American counties. The right to choose is already only theoretical for many young women, poor women and women living in rural areas. For these women, an abortion is not affordable because it isn't covered by Medicaid, or feasible because the only provider is many hours (and sometimes a state or two) away.
For these women, who currently live without a choice, RU-486 would be a panacea, which is precisely why abortion opponents want to make RU-486 so difficult to prescribe. If all goes as planned, a woman will simply go to her primary care physician to be prescribed the drug. The intimidation of both doctor and patient that takes place outside of clinics will be bypassed. So will the long trips out of state. The doctor who knows the patient best will give the counseling required by most states.
Both doctors and legislators must stand up against those who seek to limit RU-486's use. Instead of making new more restrictive laws, lawmakers should change them to exempt RU-486 from the limits on surgical abortions. Doctors should not be frightened by the laws on the books, instead challenging them in court whenever possible. For its part, Congress should include RU-486 under Medicaid coverage for the poor.
RU-486 is a safe drug. The rules that the FDA has set out for its prescription are fair. It is the laws limiting its use made in state legislatures and being proposed in Congress that put women's health in jeopardy. It is time for communities without abortion providers, and women who have been waiting for RU-486 for over a decade, to demand that their legislators clear the legal entanglements which may snare the drug before it reaches pharmacy shelves.
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