The political problem of abortion in America can seem like a frustrating series of what-ifs that lead to unexpected places. In light of Colorado’s success with a fraught subject, we have been looking back.
Many are familiar with Margaret Sanger, the nurse and educator who popularized the term “birth control” and was a forerunner of Planned Parenthood. Unfortunately, many also know of Sanger because, in the 1920s, she was a convert to eugenics. Sanger believed humanity could be improved if we could keep the unfit from reproducing. If you are thinking “unfit” is a sinister tent, you are correct. What if Sanger had held more enlightened views for her time? It is a big ask. People who are anti-abortion will say, then she never would have been a birth control pioneer; but we do not know.
Among the less expected places this discussion can lead is to Höchst, a town near Frankfurt, Germany, where, in 1863, a chemicals company was founded. It became known as the Hoechst company, which became part of the IG Farben industrial conglomerate, in 1925. The Nazis accused Farben of being an “international capitalist Jewish company” – until it became a pro-Nazi enterprise, which participated in the Holocaust willingly and enthusiastically, manufacturing the infamous poison gas Zyklon B among other wicked deeds. After World War II, the Allies broke Farben back into its constituent parts. Hoechst went on its way and acquired a majority stake in Roussel-Uclaf, France’s second-largest pharmaceutical company.
In 1980, a chemist working for Roussel Uclaf synthesized mifepristone. Because it was the 38,486th compound synthesized by R-U, it became known as RU-486. It was intended for medical abortions.
In 1988, Hoechst, in the face of U.S. anti-abortion protests, got cold feet about RU-486.
You could see where this was leading. It was too easy for the increasingly militant pro-lifers to say Nazis were trying to kill babies just like they killed Jews.
Roussel-Uclaf voted to stop distribution. The French government said no: “From the moment ... approval for the drug was granted, RU-486 became the moral property of women, not just the property of a drug company,” French Health Minister Claude Évin said in 1988.
Roussel-Uclaf subsequently donated all U.S. rights for the use of mifepristone to an American company, which brought it to market in 2000. On its face, RU-486 was a brilliant move for abortion-rights proponents. If it could be used without a physician’s supervision, it could make abortion entirely private. It was not that safe, however; and in America, the abortion wars rolled on, with clinics often their focus.
Colorado has not been exempted, in part because it is one of the few states to allow third-trimester abortions. But there was news recently that ought to be good from either side of the debate, if you exclude the fringes: Abortion rates have dropped, again, in Colorado, The Colorado Sun reports – apparently due to increased access to birth control.
In 2013, Colorado pharmacies began dispensing the morning-after pill or Plan B, a form of emergency contraception. In 2017, we became one of just three states to allow people to purchase oral contraceptives with a prescription obtained from a pharmacy, not just from a physician. And the cost of IUDs, which are implanted to prevent pregnancies for years, is now subsidized in Colorado with state and federal funds; in some cases, IUDs are free.
That seems like enlightened public policy. It was just five years ago that Bob Beauprez, the Republican nominee for Colorado governor, claimed, wrongly, that IUDs are “abortifacients.” He might have been thinking of RU-486 or it might have been the anti-abortion stance gone haywire. In any case, from 2014 to 2017, Colorado abortions declined by 10%.
As The Sun reports, that tracks with a national decline to the lowest levels since 1973, the year abortion became legal.
It has been a long road with some hair-raising turns, but Colorado, like the nation, is getting its abortion act together.