A Medical Story Gone Awry

Yesterday the Food and Drug Administration issued a public health advisory for Mifepristone, the abortion pill commonly known as RU-486, as the organization continues to investigate four deaths of pill users from infections between September 2003 to June 2005.

So far, the news hasn’t made a big splash with the media, but the New York Times did report on it this morning.

The article begins straightforwardly enough. Who died? How? Then there are the mandatory comments from doctors at the FDA and the drug manufacturer. The twist in the story is that the drug already carries a “black box” warning — the highest level — and that the new warning will be added as part of that label.

How do doctors feel about this? Will the label change make a difference? Is the drug safe?

Well, who knows? Not us, because the Times turns the medical story into a “he said/she said” political debate about abortion.

First cited is Wendy Wright, senior policy director for Concerned Women of America: “Changing the label the last time clearly didn’t help the latest woman who died. Sadly, people who support RU-486 apparently believe the risk of death is preferable to having a child.”

The Times then lends space to the other side, Elizabeth Toledo, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who simply states, “Medication abortion is extremely safe and effective.”

Our question is, why even talk to Wright and Toledo? Everybody knows that Wright will say abortion is bad, and that Toledo will say that women have a right to choose, or tailor that message to fit this story.

But abortion is not the issue here. The issue is the safety of Mifepristone. And for that we need input from scientists, doctors and other experts on medical abortions — not talking points from partisan advocacy groups.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.