Medical Society set up abortion pill challenge

SAN FRANCISCO -- Searching for the Jane Roe of the 1990s, the San Francisco Medical Society said Friday it interviewed several pregnant women trying to find the right candidate to challenge the federal ban on RU-486, the French abortion pill.

Steve Heilig, director of public health and education for the Society, said various women were approached and interviewed before the agency settled on a 29-year-old San Francisco woman known only as Leona to bring the illegal drug into New York's Kennedy Airport on Wednesday.


Abortion rights advocates had tipped off U.S. Customs officials at Kennedy that Leona was carrying in the drug from Europe, where it is legal, in an attempt to challenge the Food and Drug Administration's ban. Officials immediately detained Leona at the airport and confiscated the drug.

'We had to select a patient who fit the clinical profile for the drug,' Heilig said. 'She had to be very early in pregnancy, have no hypertension and not be a smoker. She also had to be brave....In recruiting, we had to be very clear that they could be another Jane Roe. '


The latter reference is to Norma McCorvey, the Texas woman who in 1970challenged her state's anti-abortion law under the assumed name of Jane Roe. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in her case, Roe vs. Wade, affirmed that women in the United States have a right to abortion.

Heilig said three other West Coast women seeking abortions briefly had been considered, but each backed out for different reasons.

In fact, Heilig said, Leona did not even know of the plan until last week when she first sought an abortion from a San Francisco doctor. The airline ticket she used actually had been purchased for another volunteer.

The plan to challenge the ban was originally conceived by Lawrence Lader, the president of Abortion Rights Mobilization, a New York group. Heilig said Lader sought the help of the San Francisco Medical Society because of the agency's strong stand in support of RU-486.

The action also came after months of lobbying with federal officials to allow the use of the drug, which causes a woman up to nine weeks pregnant to shed the lining of her uterus and with it the early developing fetus.

'When there is no movement, you have to resort to more drastic tactics,' Heilig said. 'We've been talking about this for months and months. We finally put it together and, for the last month, have been looking for a patient.'


Heilig said Leona was prepared to take the pills, but now will likely seek a traditional surgical abortion.

The FDA on Thursday told Leona's attorneys the drug would not be returned to her.

Federal lawmakers have approved in committees legislation that would restore a woman's right to abortion in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling on Monday that allowed states to put additional restrictions on abortion access.

Although Senate and House leaders believe the legislation has enough votes to pass when it comes up in joint session midsummer, President Bush is expected to veto it and they doubt the veto could be overridden.

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