A French drug company is seeking to offer American women something their European counterparts already have: a pill that works long after "the morning after."
The drug, dubbed ella, would be sold as a contraceptive -- one that could prevent pregnancy for as many as five days after unprotected sex. But the new drug is a close chemical relative of the abortion pill RU-486, raising the possibility that it could also induce abortion by making the womb inhospitable for an embryo.
The controversy sparked by that ambiguity promises to overshadow the work of a federal panel that will convene next week to consider endorsing the drug. The last time the Food and Drug Administration vetted an emergency contraceptive -- Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill -- the decision was mired in debate over such fundamental questions as when life begins and the distinction between preventing and terminating a pregnancy. Ella is raising many of those same politically charged questions -- but more sharply, testing the Obama administration's pledge to keep ideology from influencing scientific decisions.
Plan B, which works for up to 72 hours after sex, was eventually approved for sale without a prescription, although a doctor's order is required for girls younger than 17. The new drug promises to extend that period to at least 120 hours. Approved in Europe last year, ella is available as an emergency contraceptive in at least 22 countries.
Ella is being welcomed by many U.S. advocates for family planning and reproductive rights as a much-needed additional form of emergency contraception. Opponents of the drug, however, argue that the French company and the FDA would be misleading the public by labeling ella as an emergency contraceptive. Its chemical similarity to RU-486 makes it more like the controversial abortion pill, which can terminate a pregnancy at up to nine weeks, they say. RU-486 has soared in popularity since approval 10 years ago in the United States, raising the possibility that ella (ulipristal acetate) might become ubiquitous in American women's medicine cabinets.