By Randall K. O'Bannon, Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research
Details continue to emerge, but multiple sources confirm that a Swedish teenager bled to death after taking RU486 last summer. In 1992 Sweden put RU486 on the market, one of the first countries in the world to approve its sale.
On March 12, 2004, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that the girl was in her seventh week of pregnancy when she sought an abortion at her local hospital in western Sweden. She was given RU486 (sold under the name Mifegyne in Europe), and returned home after a period of observation with instructions to call doctors if her bleeding became excessive.
According to AFP, a nurse attempting to contact her at home two days later was unsuccessful. Six days later she was found dead in her home. AFP reported that "Loss of blood from the abortion medication was cited as the official cause of death."
The case was reported to Swedish authorities, who ruled that doctors had given an appropriate dosage and followed proper procedure.
Other sources provide the name of the victim, her home town, and the date of her death. The Swedish daily Expressen of March 13, 2004, identified the girl as 16-year-old Rebecca Tell Berg of Uddevalla. The paper indicated she died June 3, 2003.
Unlike the AFP, which quotes only government agents (and appears to have mistakenly reported the young woman's age as 18), the Expressen spoke with Rebecca's mother, Catharina Tell. It offered a more complete account of the girl's last days.
Catharina Tell told the Expressen that Rebecca "didn't want to have a chemical abortion," but did so because "the doctor told her that it was much better than having a suction abortion."
The government report indicated that Rebecca actually made three separate visits to the hospital and related the details of each visit.
At the first, she met with a gynecologist to discuss abortion procedures. She chose to have a chemical abortion.
Rebecca returned to the hospital a week later to receive the RU486, according to the government's report. This begins to initiate the abortion, which shuts down the baby's life support system and deprives the child of food and oxygen.
Two days after receiving the RU486, she returned to take two misoprostol tablets, a prostaglandin which stimulates powerful uterine contractions to expel the child's corpse. According to the report, Rebecca took the medicine at 8:25 a.m. and stayed at the hospital, feeling sick, but sleeping for most of the time. She began bleeding around 3 p.m., the usual signal that the abortion has begun, and received pain medication.
Rebecca was allowed to go home at 4:30 p.m., after passing a "big blob." A follow-up visit was scheduled for a month later, the report indicated.
The Expressen relates what happened six days after she left the hospital. Though living with her mother, Rebecca was staying at her boyfriend's apartment the day she died.
That morning, June 3, seeing she was very tired, her boyfriend suggested she return to the hospital. However, having been told by the hospital that she might bleed for two weeks, Rebecca decided to stay at the apartment.
Her boyfriend left breakfast waiting for her on the table, the newspaper reported. When he came home that afternoon, he found the breakfast where he had left it, uneaten. He found Rebecca dead in the shower.
The county coroner's report concluded that the girl died as a result of the blood loss following a chemically induced abortion.
A government official told AFP that this is the first such death in Sweden. However, Johan Lundell, the leader of Sweden's right to life movement, JA till Livet, said that other women have since come forward to the press, saying that they too almost died after RU486 abortions.
Lundell told National Right to Life News that one of them was found lying in the shower bleeding and unconscious. Lundell sent along documentation in the form of recent articles appearing in Swedish newspapers (Expressen, 3/14/04; Aftonbladet, 3/3/04).
What is significant about the Swedish cases is not simply that they prove again how dangerous these drugs are. This death and these near-deaths occurred despite the presence of more rigorous "safeguards" than are currently in place in the U.S.
In September 2000, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) granted approval for sale of RU486 in this country. There are three visits involved under this protocol.
RU486 is administered during the first visit and the prostaglandin misoprostol is supposed to be administered during the second visit to the abortion facility. This latter drug initiates powerful contractions to expel the dead or dying baby.
During national trials, a four-hour observation period was part of the second visit. The FDA dropped that provision.
Worse yet, many clinics, including the one selling the pill to Holly Patterson, the San Francisco-area teen who died in September 2003, have since dropped the second visit entirely (East Bay Express, 12/17/03). They instead administer the prostaglandin to the patient to take home and self-administer.
Those clinics also are often instructing women to administer the prostaglandin vaginally, rather than taking it orally, another change from the protocol approved by the FDA, according to the Washington Post (11/3/03). In an attempt to cut costs, other clinics have reduced dosages of the abortion pill itself (New York Times, 12/30/00).
Hardly any of these shortcuts seem to have been the case with Rebecca Tell Berg, demonstrating how inherently risky is the RU486 abortion technique. According to the government report, she received full dosages of both the RU486 and misoprostol (though it does appear the misoprostol was administered vaginally).
Both drugs were taken at the hospital. Rebecca was under observation for a full eight hours during the third visit where she took the prostaglandin and did not leave until she passed a "big blob."
She was told to call if her bleeding became excessive, but also told she could expect to bleed for as long as two weeks. The government report indicated that at least one call was made by a medical professional inquiring about her condition. Yet Rebecca Tell Berg still bled to death in her boyfriend's shower.
Legitimate concerns have been raised regarding whether shortcuts were taken in the American protocol used by the San Francisco-area Planned Parenthood clinic that may have led or contributed to Holly Patterson's death. But the death of Rebecca Tell Berg shows that ultimately there is no way to administer these drugs that is safe.