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RU-486 Takes the Blame Again
March 20 2006
Rebecca Goldin
The press warns about an extremely small risk but the alternative is riskier

The FDA is investigating the cause of death of two women who had taken RU-486, commonly known as the abortion pill. It is possible that the deaths will be attributable to the pill, bringing to total seven women whose deaths have been linked to RU-486 since its approval in 2000.

But yet again, the press is reporting this without context. The Washington Post did not report the rate of death, except by quoting Planned Parenthood about how many women take the drug – easy to dismiss since it’s an interested group. The L.A. Times was more responsible; it did report the rate of death, but gave no comparison to other behaviors – especially the risk of remaining pregnant. The Miami Herald also stated the risk, but incorrectly said that it was “comparable to risks with surgical abortions and childbirth.” RU-486 is not comparable to childbirth; in fact, it is much less risky.

Every year, lightening kills more people in the United States than this drug, by almost 80 times (approximately 540 in the same six years). Even among people actually taking RU-486, the death rate is just over 1 in 100,000 – that’s .001%. For comparison, the maternal rate of death for every live birth is about 9.8 in 100,000, almost ten time as high (according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). For a pregnant woman, the choice is to have the baby or to have an abortion – and from a purely medical point of view, there is less risk in aborting.

This risk should also be couched in terms of other risks that we take daily. Every year, about 42,000 people are killed in automobile accidents. That’s more than .01% of the population in the United States. So one year of driving is about ten times more risky than having a medicinal abortion. Yet no one is talking about banning cars.

In the reports on the risks associated with RU-486, the risk is not the issue. These pills are safer than pregnancy. The press should admit that it’s talking about statistics as a cover for the moral issue. Deaths from RU-486 make headlines because people are opposed to abortion, not because of concern for maternal health.