Death by RU-486: What About the Health of the Mother?

A California teen-ager died Sept. 17 after taking the abortion drug RU-486.

She didn't just take it and die. She was bleeding severely and unable to walk when she visited a clinic and, finally, a few days later, an emergency room before succumbing to septic shock and a severe bacterial infection.

After Holly Patterson was counseled by a Planned Parenthood clinic and given the drugs to end the seven-week pregnancy, the San Francisco-area teen was too scared to tell emergency room staff that she was in the midst of an abortion, a self-administered procedure that would kill her.

The convenience of self-medication, since RU-486 was approved by the FDA in 2000, apparently doesn't take away the stigma or the dangers of abortion. It's one of those constitutionally guaranteed rights that no one really likes to brag about.

Legally an adult at 18, Holly lived at home with her dad. But she wouldn't share the news of her pregnancy with him or her intention to have an abortion. And she certainly didn't tell him about the abortion going wrong.

She was young but didn't have to inform her parents. Her boyfriend was also scared or ashamed. He didn't tell the ER doctors what was going on.

How different is her story from “dying in an alley” back in the illegal abortion days? If abortion is simply a right and a choice and a freedom in this country, then why would a women die and die silently? She'd rather die than tell?

Holly's dad criticized “this microwave society where things are quick and easy, but they're not.”

Talk to your parents, he said.

Planned Parenthood says kids don't want to talk to their parents about sexual issues. On its Web site, the organization asks the question, “What would be wrong with making teens ask their parents for permission to use birth control?” The answer: Basically, it would lead to more teen pregnancy. Family relationships are pushed to the background because teens say they'd be less likely to visit a health care facility if they had to tell their parents first.

Of course teen-agers will prefer to take the advice of nonjudgmental strangers who do not know anything about them than seek the advice of a parent or clergyman or teacher who is personally involved in their lives. They are teen-agers. They don't want to hear No or get a speech or a sermon or anything that doesn't affirm their raging hormones and their need to be free and express themselves.

But parents have to say No about a lot of things that affect the well-being of their kids. About money and cars and whom they hang out with and what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate for them, even as they enter adulthood.

Across the board, the vast majority of parents would probably be angry to learn of an unplanned pregnancy — initially. Maybe some would not get past that. But many would. And one hopes this death will not be treated as a fluke but as a wake-up call to parents to discuss things with their teens. So parents will not make assumptions about their kids' sexual activity or believe that strangers and the public school system will provide them with everything they need to avoid pregnancy or rid themselves of pregnancy.

And perhaps the invincible teen-agers who know everything will pause to consider that there are no quick fixes and that they had better prepare themselves for the results of their very grown-up actions.

RU-486 is not without controversy. There is talk that European trials showing risk were overlooked by the United States and the FDA. There are guidelines being followed in Europe — the drugs must be taken in the medical facility and the patient watched for a minimum of four hours to monitor for any bad reactions.

But, in the United States, teens such as Holly Patterson are often trusted to have the judgment in the middle of a crisis pregnancy to decide what to do and when to do it.

If a kid can't go into an emergency room and level with the staff, how can she be trusted to self-administer a complicated pharmaceutical cocktail? Can anyone honestly say to this girl, “Well, you've proven yourself to be responsible and dependable in life-or-death matters. We're going to let you handle this on your own.”

She got pregnant in the first place when she didn't intend to. She was “accident prone.” She shouldn't have been left alone with her problems.

Susan Konig is author of the upcoming Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road and Other Lies I Tell My Children.