There are many ways of viewing America's abortion debate, but one telling perspective comes from abroad. This week, abortion rights advocates from France and England were here to rally Americans behind the "abortion pill," which has eliminated one out of three surgical abortions in France.
The pill -- which terminates an early pregnancy without surgery, and which the French health minister has called "the moral property of women" -- is not available here because the manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf of France, will not market it anywhere without an invitation from government authorities.
Such invitations are expected soon from Britain and the Netherlands, according to a company spokesman. But it is hard to imagine President Bush, a declared opponent of abortion rights, invoking "the moral property of women."
The issue has taken on broader importance because RU 486 has shown promise as a treatment for breast cancer, certain brain tumors and inoperable glandular tumors. In early pregnancy, it stops production of the hormone, progesterone, causing in effect a miscarriage -- likened by users to a heavy menstrual period.
While no less a group than the American Medical Association called recently for testing and possible use of the pill here, and while the potential market is enormous -- there are 1.6 million abortions a year here -- the spectacles of states trying to outlaw abortion and threats of retaliation by the antiabortion movement have kept the drug at bay.
The question is really one of reconciling the mindsets of a French company, which happens to have a West German parent, and of that quirky lot known as Americans. All of which caused the European activists who came here this week to dwell as much on America's abortion debate as on the virtues of RU 486, and to express amazement -- and horror -- that a country descended from Europe could have given birth to such a gridlock.
"I think it's quite extraordinary that the developed country in the world is treating its women this way," said Dilys Cossey, chairman of England's Family Planning Association and an abortion-rights leader there for 25 years. "As I understand it, there's a very strong separation of church and state here. So there should be the ability to be objective about moral issues. A lot of Americans came from Europe, so we have the same roots. What's gone wrong?"
"Abortion is a fact. A fact is not good, it is not bad. We perform abortions to prevent physical and psychological disasters," said Elisabeth Aubeny, an obstetrician/gynecologist in a Paris hospital where 2,200 women have aborted pregnancies with RU 486.
"We are afraid to touch our abortion law," she said, "because we know that if abortion isn't legal, it will be performed illegally, and there will be deaths of women. And yet your states are trying to outlaw abortion. Are Americans not afraid of this?"
Marie Bass, co-director of the Washington-based Reproductive Health Technologies Project, which brought the Europeans here as part of its effort to build support for RU 486 in the United States, was sitting nearby. She nodded in agreement and threw up her hands in exasperation as if to say, "Our point exactly."
The project aims to change not just the American debate, but Roussel Uclaf's mind. If the Bush administration won't invite the company in, the reproductive health project is hoping that it will be enough for American women -- outraged American women -- to issue the invitation themselves.
"Why are women in our country being punished because this is a political issue?" said Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an advocate of RU 486 and sponsor of one of the briefings given by the Europeans this week. "The breast cancer connection makes my concern even greater. It's an absolute outrage. The more we talk about it, the more outraged the women of America will become."
Several abortion rights advocates said after the briefing that they hoped the advent of an abortion pill would take the fire out of the debate here by allowing abortion to be as private as a visit to a doctor's office, and earlier than surgical abortion, in the first seven weeks.
But it has hardly cooled off John C. Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee. If Roussel Uclaf tries to bring the pill here, he said, his group will actively remind Americans that the firm's German parent, Hoechst AG, is descended from a Nazi-era cartel, one of whose subsidiaries made gas used to kill prisoners in concentration camps.
With this sort of hazard looming, Edouard Sakiz, president of Roussel Uclaf, said from Paris yesterday that the support voiced here was "encouraging," but had no effect.
"The debate in your country is not finished," he said. "We are waiting for a big decision from the government."