Population Control and RU-486: The Hidden Agenda

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– David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

Population control advocates insist that expanded access to abortion is essential to improving the status and health of women throughout the world. Indeed, this message was tirelessly promoted by Hillary Clinton and U.S. officials at a long series of recent U.N. conferences dealing with population growth and women’s rights.

Pro-lifers are obviously opposed to any effort to expand abortion access around the world. In the current battle over the foreign operations appropriation bill, they are seeking to reinstate a policy that banned the distribution of funds to organizations that perform or promote abortions. If they succeed in adding this restrictive language, the White House is threatening to veto the bill.

On the surface, this would appear to be just another battle over abortion rights. Should women, of any country, have the right to abortion or not? In reality, the issue is much more complex.

Many proponents of population control honestly believe that these programs will expand the rights of women and improve their lives. In contrast to these humanitarians, however, there is another group of population controllers who want to reduce individual rights at the expense of women.

These are the zealots. They are the ones who make excuses for programs that involve coerced sterilizations, forced abortions, or the withholding of food or medical care unless poor women “voluntarily” accept IUDs or Norplant insertions.

Some zealots, such as Paul Ehrlich, are doomsayers who believe that population growth threatens the survival of humanity. “Injustice is preferable to ruin,” is one of their most oft-repeated quotes.

Other zealots are not afraid of ruin; they fear loss of privilege. This latter group believes that higher birth rates will actually improve the political and economic power of developing countries — but at the expense of U.S. and European dominance.

In short, these zealots are not seeking to advance the rights and welfare of the poor. Just the opposite. They are actually elitists who see population control as a means of keeping the “rabble” in their place.

Naturally, these elitists are rarely so blunt. They are a civilized bunch, after all, and generally take care to sound remarkably like their humanitarian friends.

That is one of the problems in this debate. One can never be sure of a population controller’s motives. Humanitarian? Doomsayer? Elitist? Or a mix of all three?

Population controllers of all stripes tend to gravitate toward humanitarian rhetoric. For example, Professor Garrett Hardin is one of the most enduring and preeminent proponents of population control. In the early 1960s, before the modern feminist movement was born, Hardin popularized the argument that abortion is part of a “woman’s right to control her own body.”

But in publications for population control specialists, Hardin argues that “freedom to breed is intolerable.” He believes the reproductive rights of women and men should actually be subservient to public policy. Like many zealots, he has defended and even applauded China’s brutal one-child policy.

Unfortunately, many overseas population programs are run by zealots of a similar stripe. They are fluent in humanitarian lingo but are actually hostile to individual freedom. While pledging to advance women’s health, they advise clients to use dangerous birth control technologies without even informing them of the risks. As true elitists, they believe the poor are too ignorant to make an informed choice, so they make it for them.

For example, dangerous IUDs that are banned in America are freely distributed in developing countries, often as a requirement for obtaining basic health care. For true believers of population control, even a dangerous contraceptive is better than none.

Human Guinea Pigs 

The poor are also the primary targets for experimental programs. In a recent documentary “The Human Laboratory,” BBC journalists found that population controllers had tested Norplant on women in Bangladesh without the proper disclosures necessary to obtain informed consent.

Furthermore, when women with serious side effects asked to have the Norplant inserts removed, they were refused on the grounds that their withdrawal from the program would upset the test results. Some investigators have concluded that the complaints of many Bengali women were omitted from the final data in an effort to minimize the perceived risks of the drug.

After using these test results to receive FDA approval in the U.S., Norplant manufacturers now face several class action suits brought by American women who are making the same complaints alleged by the “guinea pigs” of Bangladesh. Unfortunately for Norplant promoters, American women have more legal recourse than Bengalis.

The same BBC documentary reported that women in the Philippines and Mexico have also been used as guinea pigs for a new experimental pregnancy vaccine. The HCG vaccine makes a woman’s body reject new pregnancies. According to human rights activists, it has been administered, without the consent or knowledge of patients, as a “piggyback” vaccine in a series of tetanus vaccine programs.

Many Filipinos were initially curious as to why only women of reproductive age had been eligible for the free tetanus vaccine, especially since tetanus is more common among young men. But when women who had recently received the “tetanus vaccine” began having an inordinate number of miscarriages, this bureaucratic curiosity turned into charges of conspiracy. Subsequent lab tests of the tetanus vaccine confirmed it had indeed been laced with an HCG vaccine.

Population control zealots who have little or no regard for individual rights could hardly be expected to respect local customs, religious beliefs, or national sovereignty. They are especially frustrated with the governments of predominantly Catholic and Moslem countries where abortion remains illegal or strictly limited.

Many leading population control organizations, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, have adopted policies that aggressively promote abortion even in countries where it is illegal. They argue that illegal abortions may be “part of the process of stimulating change.”

The Mad Rush Toward RU-486 

The FDA’s recent approval of the abortion inducing drug RU-486 may make it even easier for population control zealots to “stimulate change.”

Five years ago, presidential candidate Bill Clinton promised population control advocates that he would hasten FDA approval of the new abortion drug. He kept his word.

Following Clinton’s election, the FDA urged RU-486 manufacturer Rouessel Uclaf to submit the drug for approval. After much foot dragging, the company declined, expressing its fear of product liability claims and bad publicity from anti-abortion activists. Then in May of 1994, the administration announced that it had convinced the company to “donate” the patent to the Population Council, one of America’s most zealous promoters of international population control. This agreement would let Roussel Uclaf off the hook and give the administration its abortion drug.

To further grease the skids, the FDA agreed to lower the standards for testing and review which are normally required before approval of a new drug. The Population Council would be able to obtain approval by spending only $8 million in drug testing trials, compared to the $100 million or more that drug companies must usually spend. In addition, the target date for approval was reduced to six months. The approval time for most pharmaceuticals, ranging from migraine treatments to chemotherapy drugs, typically requires six years or more.

In July of 1996, an FDA advisory panel recommended approval of RU-486 even though the American clinical trials were still not complete. Most shocking of all, this recommendation was made despite the unimpeachable testimony of Dr. Mark Louviere, a physician who treated a woman for a life-threatening hemorrhage two weeks after the RU-486 was administered. The woman had lost one-half to two-thirds of her blood. But what really bothered Dr. Louviere (but not the committee, apparently) was even though he reported the complication to the Planned Parenthood clinic which administered the experimental drug, a representative of the same Planned Parenthood clinic subsequently told the media that there had been “no complications among the 238 women” they aborted in this manner.

Normally, one might expect the FDA to immediately reject an application for approval in the face of such incontrovertible evidence of poor record keeping, public deception, and even outright fraud. But this was a special case. This was an abortion drug.

Risks Versus Benefits of RU-486

Why did RU-486 receive the “most favored drug” treatment? While there may be reasons for accelerating the approval of potentially life-saving or life-extending drugs, (such as in the case of AIDS treatments) no such reasons apply here. RU-486 is clearly intended only for non-therapeutic, elective abortions. There is no health crisis demanding this treatment before its risks are properly established. Even as an elective treatment, patients already have a surgical option, which abortion proponents insist is already safe, effective, and inexpensive.

The rush to approve RU-486 is even more puzzling in light of the European experience with this drug. Ru-486 abortions have actually proven to cost the same as a surgical abortion, in part because it requires three or more visits to the clinic or hospital, more staff, and careful monitoring.

These precautions are necessary because of multiple side effects, including heavy bleeding, cardiac arrest, and frequent incomplete abortions. Even the Population Council anticipates that the rates for hemorrhaging, hospitalization, and surgical interventions to stop bleeding will each fall into the range of one to two percent. Projecting these rates on 1.5 million abortions per year, each of these “rare” complications would effect 15,000 to 30,000 women per year. Combined with the problem of cardiac arrest, which has resulted in the death of at least one woman and heart attacks for several others, these complication rates suggest that Roussel Uclaf’s decision not to market the drug in the U.S. may reflect greater concern about litigious Americans than about pro-life Americans.

Nor is this procedure less stressful than surgical abortion. Most Ru-486 patients experience severe cramping, nausea, vomiting, and bleeding. Also, according to Roussel Uclaf spokesman Lester Hyman, “there is considerable pain attached to the procedure.

The emotional drain can be even greater. Rather than being “over with” in ten minutes, an RU-486 abortion takes days, sometimes a week or more. Even if the woman can ignore the nausea and pain, she is still faced with days of anxiety. She must worry about whether the procedure will work. (For up to one in ten women, it does not.) Plus, she will be inevitably plagued with questions about whether her fetus is alive or dead, or suffering at any particular moment. Finally, if the aborted human fetus is expelled into the woman’s sanitary napkin–with its head, arms, and legs clearly intact–this self-incriminating sight may be burned into her memory for the rest of her life. In this last respect, the emotional impact of such chemically induced abortion may be even more pronounced than it is for women undergoing “blind” surgical abortions. It is no wonder, then, that even Edouard Sakiz, former president of Roussel Uclaf, admits that RU-486 abortions involve an “appalling psychological ordeal.”

Because of these problems, the opposition to RU-486 includes not only the usual anti-abortion “suspects” but also some pro-abortion feminists. While the former believe it is a drug used for immoral purposes, the latter believe RU-486 is simply inferior to and more dangerous than surgical abortion.

Exporting Abortion 

Despite all of these problems, population controllers and the U.S. government want RU-486 as quickly as possible and with minimal review. Why?

When properly administered, RU-486 is not safer, less expensive, or more private than surgical abortion. But it does have one advantage: it is more portable. Once it is granted FDA approval, it will be relatively easy to take into Third World countries where abortion is not legally available.

The U.S. government spends millions of dollars each year to “protect our national interests” through programs designed to suppress the “excess” population growth of developing countries. As part of this effort, the Clinton administration in particular has openly lobbied for expanding access to abortion in the Third World. But this latter objective is blocked by two obstacles. First, abortion is still illegal in many developing countries. Second, surgical abortion is more technically complicated; it requires more in the way of medical facilities and training. Despite its many flaws, RU-486 offers a way around both of these problems.

Since most developing countries do not have labs and agencies governing the approval of drugs, their import restrictions, if any, are often linked to approval by the U.S. FDA. “If a drug is safe enough for the Americans,” they assume, “it must be safe enough for us.” Even in countries where abortion is illegal, FDA approval is the key to exporting RU-486 for “other” medical purposes.

Once it is brought into developing countries, RU-486 can be easily transported and distributed. With a little training, it can be cheaply administered by midwives. To avoid trouble with the law, or the conscience of individual patients, these abortifacient treatments can be disguised under the euphemism of “menstrual regulation.”

Perhaps most important of all, since the citizens of developing countries have far less recourse to civil courts than litigious Americans, those who manufacture and distribute RU-486 in these countries will be shielded from proper liability for the injuries that will inevitably occur.

For population controllers, this is a no-lose situation. When women begin to die because the drug was not “properly administered” their deaths will be blamed on the “archaic and patriarchal” laws that prevent easy access to “safe and legal” abortions.

In this way, population control “spin masters” can turn the expected complications of RU-486 to their own advantage. By driving up abortion rates — and corresponding maternal deaths–population control zealots will be able to put more political pressure on Third World governments to legalize abortion in order to “make it safe.”

In short, the rush for FDA approval of RU-486 is not about improving the welfare of American women. It is about exporting more abortions to the “backward” people of the Third World. It is about protecting our national interests–i.e. American dominance–by suppressing “excess births” in nations which might otherwise compete for the economic resources and political power which we now enjoy.

The FDA review of RU-486 has been a thinly veiled sham, its conclusion predetermined by a “national interest” in increasing abortion “options.” For the Clinton regime, expanding the tools of population controllers–here and abroad– is more important than protecting the health of individual women–here and abroad.


The record of U.S.-funded population control programs is not an encouraging one. These programs may be supported and funded by humanitarians, but it is sadly clear that they are often run by zealots who have little regard for individual rights, cultural and religious norms, or national sovereignty.

It is not only pro-lifers who should be concerned. All people of good will should look beyond the rhetoric and join in an effort to ensure the protection of individual freedom, patients’ rights, and national sovereignty.

Reprinted from The Post-Abortion Review, 5(4), Fall 1997. Copyright 1997, The Elliot Institute.