By JEREMY REES
A controversial abortion pill has been approved for use in New Zealand.
The French drug RU-486, also known as Mifepristone and Mifegyne, has been approved for prescription use only.
The Ministry of Health senior medical adviser, Stewart Jessamine, said the drug had been subject to an extensive evaluation process by ministry unit Medsafe.
That process looked at data from clinical trials and also examined the experiences of other countries where the pill was in use, including the United States, Sweden and Britain.
"Medsafe is satisfied that Mifegyne meets the international standards of safety and effectiveness required for medicines," Dr Jessamine said.
Although approved as a prescription medicine, Mifegyne would not be available for use by GPs or most other doctors.
By law, abortion could be induced only by licensed practitioners, and the pill would be available only to those licensed under the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act.
The drug, marketed in the US as the Early Option pill and advertised in women's magazines, works by blocking the action of progesterone, the hormone that maintains pregnancy.
A miscarriage is then triggered by taking a prostaglandin - which encourages contractions - two days later.
It is intended to be used for women up to eight weeks pregnant as an alternative to surgery.
The decision drew criticism from anti-abortion groups, with Right to Life New Zealand taking issue with the ministry's description of the pill as safe medication.
"It is neither a medication nor is it safe. Pregnancy is not a disease," spokesman Ken Orr said.
"This decision marks a shameful chapter in New Zealand's history, a decision that imposes chemical warfare before birth against our own children."
RU-486 had been found on the hair follicles in the ovaries of women who had used the drug, and the long-term effect on future children was unknown.
The drug is suitable for women up to nine weeks pregnant, but is most effective before seven weeks.
There are some side effects, including bleeding and cramping.
The US approved the drug for use in September last year. It was approved for use in Britain in 1991 and has been used in France since 1989.
Christian Heritage leader the Rev Graham Capill also denounced the drug's approval.
Mr Capill said: "RU-486 snuffs out the life of the unborn child, is detrimental to the wellbeing of women and wastes precious health resources."
While it was presented as a quick and easy abortion option, its use would still require the signatures of two certifying consultants and admittance to hospital.
International health authorities say it is safe and useful, but right-to-lifers warn it will be traumatic for women and may mean the number of abortions will increase.
The drug was invented in 1980 by Dr Etienne-Emile Baulieu for the French firm Roussel-Uclaf.
Its name comes from Roussel-Uclaf's initials plus a serial number.
By JEREMY REES