The Father of the Abortion Pill

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After RU-486’s approval, Dr. Elisabeth Aubény, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said her hospital gave it to appreciative patients, but also encountered protesters who chained themselves to operating tables.

Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Baulieu received hate mail, some of it antisemitic. A poster in Canada featured Dr. Baulieu’s photo and the words “Wanted for Genocide.” One in San Francisco equated him with the Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, calling them “blood brothers.” In New Orleans, a small bomb exploded at a conference at the time Dr. Baulieu would have been speaking if not for travel delays, he said.

He also received grateful letters from America and pleas for the pill to be available there. Some at Roussel-Uclaf felt he hadn’t shared enough credit for RU-486. Not long after Dr. Baulieu won the Lasker Award, Dr. Teutsch, the chemist, was quoted as saying, “Étienne Baulieu is the father of the pill, but he is not the father of the compound.”

For years, afraid that opposition in America would lead to boycotts of its other products, the company declined to seek approval of RU-486. In 1993, an abortion rights organization started a clandestine lab to make the pill in a suburban New York warehouse. In 1994, with the Clinton administration championing the pill, Roussel-Uclaf donated American rights to the Population Council, a nonprofit organization.

The Food and Drug Administration gave RU-486 conditional approval in 1996, but large pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t manufacturer it, and full approval didn’t occur until 2000, after a small company, Danco Laboratories, agreed to make it.

Today, as some states ban nearly all abortions and propose actions to target medication abortion, other states and the Biden administration have taken steps to expand access to abortion pills. Patients can have consultations with abortion providers via telemedicine and receive the prescribed pills by mail. A new F.D.A. rule will allow retail pharmacies like CVS to fill prescriptions for the pills. And in states with abortion bans, many patients order pills from an overseas telemedicine abortion organization.