The White House and RU-486: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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It has not been your usual drug approval process. At the White House, where information is power and officials pride themselves on having the inside scoop, virtually everyone learned that the Food and Drug administration approved the revolutionary abortion pill called mifepristone from — of all places — CNN. President Clinton learned about it only moments earlier from Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. And Shalala got the news by telephone from FDA commissioner Jane Henney — after the FDA made the announcement public.

TIME has learned that Shalala was so concerned about the administration being accused of ramrodding the abortion pill through the FDA for political reasons in the middle of a tight election that she made it clear to the White House that she did not want anyone there at all involved in the process at all. Message: Butt out. "She's smart," says a key HHS official. "She knew the press was going to ask whether any of this was done for political reasons, and she wanted to answer to be no." Shalala issued strict instructions to her staff to respond to any White House queries with a single sentence: "The FDA is going through its usual approval process."

But it wasn't exactly business at usual. For security reasons, the FDA has taken the unusual step of not disclosing the name or site of the mifepristone drug manufacturer or the names of employees working on it. Nor did they name the doctors and scientists on the FDA advisory committee that made the decision to approve the abortion pills. An HHS official said this precaution has never been taken before in connection with approval of a drug.

Why? Because there are heightened concerns for security every time abortion is in the headlines. Plus, no one is sure sure how the abortion pill decision will play with the general public. Women's rights organizations are thrilled. Right-to-lifers hate it. But there is a large middle group of Americans who have strong views on abortion, and no one can predict if they will approve of making abortion easier, even if medical data shows the drug is safer than surgical abortion. "If we had our choice, this would not have come in election season," says one official.