Abortion Pills on Trial

After years of controversy and delay, the drugs that can end a pregnancy without surgical intervention are being tested in Des Moines and other American cities

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"I was the first one in Des Moines. Everyone was really excited on Wednesday, when I was given the first dose of medication. I made a joke that we should have a ribbon-cutting ceremony. They kept telling me I was making history.

"I was very nauseous in a couple of hours. I threw up constantly for three days. I went to work. Luckily, there's a restroom in my department. I moved a little slower. Usually I'm very upbeat, but I wasn't for those three days. It was like food poisoning. I couldn't keep anything down.

"I went in on Friday and took the second dose of medication. After 15 minutes there was a tiny bit of cramping, but less than menstrual cramps. After two hours the cramps got stronger, and I started using a heating pad on my belly. I went to the restroom. When I started to stand up, it was like a faucet turned on. There was a steady stream of blood. I passed a golfball-size blood clot that scared me. I thought maybe it was the fetus.

"The cramps stayed steady. In the last 15 minutes of my appointment, I was doubled over. The bleeding was very heavy, heavier than a period. My mom drove me home. By this time, I was bleeding severely, and I had diarrhea. It reminded me of the way you bleed after you give birth. Maybe a woman that hasn't given birth might be a little more distressed.

"I aborted at 6:30 on Friday night. I heard it fall into the toilet. It looked like a blood clot. I cried when I knew it had passed -- partly from relief, partly from sadness. I knew it was over."

-- Patient 001

At the Planned Parenthood clinic in Des Moines, Iowa, they are known simply as "the M&M trials" because of the two drugs involved: mifepristone and misoprostol. But the breezy nickname fails to convey either the scientific significance or the social controversy surrounding the U.S. clinical trials of the so-called abortion pill. Although an estimated 150,000 women in Europe have used mifepristone (known there by its brand name, RU 486), the threat of consumer boycotts by antiabortion organizations discouraged Roussel Uclaf, the drug's European manufacturer, from marketing the pills in America. Instead, the company eventually agreed to let the Population Council, a nonprofit group, sponsor clinical trials of mifepristone in the U.S. Last month tests began at some of the 12 sites around the country, five of them Planned Parenthood clinics. Based on the results of these trials -- which will involve 2,100 volunteers nationwide -- the Food and Drug Administration will decide whether to approve the drug.

Patient 001, a 30-year-old blue-collar worker, was not an obvious candidate to become an abortion pioneer. "I was brought up in a Christian home," she told TIME. "My family was pro-life, so I always said 'I could never do that.' " But by the time Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa announced on Oct. 27 that it was looking for volunteers, she found herself pregnant and desperate. Married, with two children and "a complicated domestic situation" she prefers not to discuss, Patient 001 and her husband decided that she should take part in the trials. "I was terrified of a surgical abortion because of a friend's bad experience," she says.

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