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LIFE DIGEST: Panelists disagree on RU 486’s dangers; House rejects military abortions; …

WASHINGTON (BP)–Health experts disagreed about the role RU 486 has played in the deaths of several American women and what should be done about the abortion drug during a one-day panel discussion May 11.

A lack of consensus reportedly marked the briefing, which was hosted in Atlanta by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes for Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The briefing was convened after the deaths of six women who used RU 486 were announced in the last 10 months. The FDA said in July four California women who underwent chemical abortions had died from an uncommon and lethal bacterial infection known as Clostridium sordellii. In March, the FDA said Danco Laboratories, which markets the drug in this country, had informed it of two other deaths following use of the drug. Later, however, it was announced the drug was not to blame in one of the deaths.

At the Atlanta briefing, the CDC said it was investigating the death of another woman who used the second dose in the two-step, RU-486 regimen, Reuters News Service reported. At least six women in the United States have died after using the drug since it went on the market in September 2000.

RU 486, also known as mifepristone, is used as the first part in a two-step process in the first seven weeks of pregnancy. Mifepristone causes the lining of the uterus to release the embryonic child. A second drug, misoprostol, is taken two days after mifepristone and causes the uterus to contract, expelling the baby.

At the briefing, panelist James McGregor, a professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, said there was a greater risk of death in chemical abortions than in surgical abortions. He recommended “we reduce or eliminate mifepristone, or at least consider that,” according to the Associated Press.

Another panelist, Dale Gerding, from a Veterans Affairs hospital in Illinois, called for more study. “We clearly need controlled trials,” he said, Reuters reported.

According to Reuters, Sandra Kweder, the FDA’s deputy director of the office of new drugs, said after the briefing, “This is a far more complex medical and epidemiological situation than originally might have appeared to be the case, and we’ll be trying to factor that into any actions that we take.”

Randall O’Bannon of the National Right to Life Committee said in a written statement after the briefing, according to AP, “Healthy women who have taken these pills have already died, and hundreds more have suffered serious adverse effects. What further evidence do we need to tell us this drug is not safe and ought to be pulled from the market?”

The deaths reported in recent months have renewed calls for Congress to require the FDA to take RU 486 off the market. The RU 486 Suspension and Review Act, H.R. 1079 in the House of Representatives and S. 511 in the Senate, would suspend the drug’s sale while a review of the FDA’s approval of the pill is conducted. Congress has shown little desire to get involved in the controversy, however. The House of Representatives bill has 83 cosponsors, while the Senate version has only 12.

BRITS BLOCK ASSISTED SUICIDE –- The House of Lords has blocked legislation that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide in England.

The Lord voted 148-100 for an amendment to delay consideration of the measure for six months, according to the BBC News.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster, spoke out against the proposal, the BBC reported.

“Legislation that permits doctors to assist in suicide fundamentally changes the role of doctor from someone who cures or cares to a killer,” said Julia Millington of the ProLife Alliance, according to the BBC.

Mark Slattery of the pro-euthanasia organization Dignity in Dying said the measure “will be back, and the campaign has not stopped.”

NO TO MILITARY ABORTIONS -– The House of Representatives again has defeated an effort to repeal a ban on abortions at United States military facilities in foreign countries.

On May 10, the House voted 237-191 against an amendment by Rep. Robert Andrews, D.-N.J., to the Department of Defense authorization bill. The proposal would have overturned a 10-year-old law that bars abortions in hospitals and other military facilities except for cases of a threat to the mother’s life and pregnancy by rape or incest.

Thirty Democrats joined 207 Republicans in defeating the amendment.

“Congress knows that our military hospitals are not there to end lives but to save them,” said Lanier Swann, Concerned Women for America’s director of government relations, in a written release. “Our brave men and women in uniform place themselves in harm’s way to protect the United States and to save lives every day. To allow abortions in military medical facilities would send a mixed message.”

CLONER INDICTED –- Hwang Woo Suk, the discredited South Korean cloning scientist, was indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement and bioethics violations May 12, according to The Washington Post.

Prosecutors indicted Hwang for receiving $2 million in private gifts as a result of falsified cloning research and for supposedly embezzling almost $900,000 in government and private grants, The Post reported. He violated a bioethics law by allegedly paying for human eggs in his research, according to the newspaper.

Five of Hwang’s research colleagues also were indicted but on lesser charges.

For Hwang, his collapse as an internationally famous scientist and national hero has been nearly complete.

In January, a Seoul National University committee reported Hwang and his research team had fraudulently claimed they had cloned the first human embryonic stem cell line. The panel also confirmed as a fake an assertion by the team that it had created 11 stem cell lines.

In March, the school fired Hwang, and the South Korean government revoked his license to conduct embryonic stem cell research.