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Italy approves RU-486 abortion pill

The long-debated move drew Vatican warnings of excommunication for doctors and patients.

ROME - Italy has approved the use of the abortion drug RU-486, capping years of debate and defying opposition from the Vatican, which warned of immediate excommunication for doctors prescribing the pill and for women who use it.

The pill is already available in a number of European countries. Its approval by Italy's drug-regulation authorities was praised by women's groups and abortion-rights organizations, which say the pill will provide women with an additional, noninvasive procedure.

It drew the immediate protest of the Catholic Church, which opposes abortion and contraception.

"That's not how you alleviate human suffering, that's not how you help women, that's not how you help mankind," Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, a senior church bioethicist, said yesterday.

The Italian Drug Agency ruled after a meeting that ended late Thursday that the drug, which terminates pregnancy by causing the embryo to detach from the uterine wall, cannot be sold in pharmacies; it can be administered only by doctors in a hospital.

The agency said in a statement that the pill can be taken only up to the seventh week of pregnancy - not up to the ninth, as is the case in other countries. Women who used the pill between the seventh and the ninth week of pregnancy incurred more risks and had often needed surgery, it said.

The decision is expected to go into effect in about two months, the agency said.

In a nod to the ethical implications associated with the decision and the controversy surrounding it, the agency noted that "the task of protecting the well-being of citizens . . . must take precedence over personal convictions."

The 4-1 vote at the agency's executive branch comes about two years after it started looking at the issue. The pill became available in some parts of Italy on an experimental basis in 2006.

For the Catholic Church, the decision was the latest defeat in its efforts to ban or restrict abortion in the nation that hosts the Vatican.

Italy legalized abortion on demand through the end of the third month of pregnancy in 1978, after a long battle between secular forces and the church. Abortion after three months is allowed when the pregnancy is deemed a grave danger to the woman's mental or physical health.

Three years later, Italians voted in a referendum to keep the law, again defying a church-backed campaign.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, issued a condemnation of abortion and the RU-486 pill in a front-page article in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano yesterday. He said the church cannot passively sit back, and insisted the ethical implications of the pill could not be overlooked.

"An embryo is not a bunch of cells," Fisichella wrote. "It's real and full human life. Suppressing it is a responsibility nobody can take without fully knowing the consequences."

There were about 121,000 abortions on demand in Italy in 2008, according to figures provided by Italy's health authorities. That number was down 48 percent from 1982 - the year when the number peaked after the referendum upholding the abortion law - and down 4 percent compared with the previous year.

Critics of RU-486 say that taking a pill might reverse that trend because it would make interrupting a pregnancy easier.