WASHINGTON -- The controversial French-made drug RU-486, used heavily overseas for abortion, may have many uses in treating women's medical problems and might even work as a birth-control pill, a National Academy of Sciences study committee said yesterday.
In a broad new review of RU-486's scientific profile, the seven-member NAS committee argued that the drug's potential is so varied that U.S. doctors, scientists, laboratories and research clinics should be doing a multitude of studies on a faster-than-usual timetable.
As an abortion technique, however, the drug has already worked so well in Europe that it could be put to use in this country without going through the usual large-scale, time-consuming studies of its safety and effectiveness, the committee said in one of its more controversial conclusions.
RU-486 is not available in the United States on a large-scale basis, and its entry into the United States for broad research or prescription by doctors is still months and maybe years away.
The 11-year-old "abortion pill," as it is popularly known, has been at the center of a raging political, medical and ethical debate over RU-486's use as a method of abortion that is more than 96 percent effective and far more private than getting an abortion at a clinic. Up to now, it has been used in some 60,000 abortions in France, Britain and Sweden.
Abortion foes have mounted an increasingly strenuous campaign keep RU-486 out of this country entirely. They ultimately may fail because of strong support by the Clinton administration for -- putting RU-486 through clinical trials for abortion and other medical treatment.
The administration, in fact, is looking for ways to promote RU-486 and is studying a plan to relax the import control imposed on RU-486 in 1988 by the Reagan administration at the urging of abortion foes in Congress.
The French manufacturer of the drug, Roussel-Uclaf, is now negotiating the terms of a deal to let a non-profit U.S. group, the New York-based Population Council, do clinical trials, while a search goes on to find a U.S. manufacturer to seek federal permission to put the drug on the market here.
The academy's study ticked off more than a dozen research projects it said should be done in this country, on everything from using RU-486 as a birth-control pill to its application to increase women's fertility, decrease breast cancer, induce monthly periods and induce labor.
In an especially controversial proposal, it also recommended broader study on RU-486 for late abortions -- beyond the first three months or trimester. Currently, RU-486 is used as an abortion method primarily through the seventh week of pregnancy in French procedure and the ninth week in British practice.
As expected, the new book-length study drew immediate and harsh criticism from opponents of abortion. The National Right to Life Committee, the nation's largest anti-abortion group, denounced the new study as "a biased pro-abortion piece of propaganda" and accused the academy of having "prostituted its integrity."
"The book," NRLC education director Richard D. Glasow said, "recycles exaggerated claims for non-abortion uses of RU-486, based on fragmentary and inconclusive research."
He said that "abortion proponents know that the only way they can get majority support [for RU-486] is to link it to non-abortion causes. This book makes the same claims we've been hearing for years."
The seven-member study committee, working within the Academy's Institute of Medicine, includes two Marylanders: Dr. Eli Y. A--i of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Dr. Michaele Christian of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda.