WASHINGTON -- It was September 1996 when the government erroneously decided that the French abortion pill RU-486 was safe and effective for women in the United States.
Thinking the drug had cleared its last major hurdle, abortion advocates proclaimed "a new era of choice" for American women and predicted it would be in doctors' offices within a year. Then the target date was pushed back to 1998. Then to 1999.
And while supporters hope the latest target date will stand, they don't speak with much certainty. The drug's failure to reach American women can be traced in part to the tenacity of pro-life forces, who have scared off drug manufacturers wary of protests and boycotts.
"The question is whether the financial gain is worth the political headache," said Hemant Shah, an independent pharmaceutical industry analyst. "And for most pharmaceutical companies, the answer is no."
Pro-life supporters show no intention of letting up. Just last month, their congressional allies won House approval of legislation designed to block the Food and Drug Administration from approving abortion-inducing drugs like RU-486, although it is doubtful the provision would achieve the goal.
"We don't want abortions to be around at all. Giving someone another option (for abortions) is not acceptable to us," said Heather Farish, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council.
She called the lack of a willing manufacturer for RU-486 the "saving grace" for pro-life advocates thus far and said: "I do believe pro-lifers did play a major role in that, and I think they will play a major role again if a manufacturer steps up and says they'll go ahead and make it."
The abortion pill, known chemically as mifepristone, has been available in France since 1988. It often has side effects and complications and at least one woman has died.
According to the FDA, adverse effects can include painful contractions of the uterus, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pelvic pain and spasm and headaches. Some women tested required hospitalization, surgical treatment and blood transfusions.
Olivia Gans, who had an abortion in 1981 but now is a spokeswoman of National Right to Life, counters that even a 5 percent failure rate is unacceptable when potential dangers are considered. She also contended it is far too soon for women to assess satisfaction with the RU-486 regimen. Physical and psychological problems may turn up far down the road, she said.
With importation of the drug banned, so far only women enrolled in clinical trials can legally obtain the drug in the United States.