Busting taboos with science: The father of the abortion pill

“When science meets women’s cause, it is irresistible,” Baulieu, 96, a French endocrinologist and biochemist often called the father of the abortion pill, said on a recent Sunday afternoon in his apartment in a century-old building a short walk from the Eiffel Tower.
Busting taboos with science: The father of the abortion pill

When the idea struck him, nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Etienne-Emile Baulieu believed it could be revolutionary. Creating a pill that could abort a pregnancy would transform reproductive health care, he thought, allowing women to avoid surgery, act earlier and carry out their decisions in private. “When science meets women’s cause, it is irresistible,” Baulieu, 96, a French endocrinologist and biochemist often called the father of the abortion pill, said on a recent Sunday afternoon in his apartment in a century-old building a short walk from the Eiffel Tower.

He had also hoped, as he wrote in a 1990 book, that by the 21st century, “paradoxically, the ‘abortion pill’ might even help eliminate abortion as an issue.” That prospect seems as distant as ever, especially in the United States. Not only has abortion remained fiercely contentious since the pill Baulieu spearheaded, mifepristone, was approved in America in 2000, but last year’s Supreme Court decision ending the federal right to abortion has divided the country over the issue as never before.

Yet over time, some of Baulieu’s expectations have materialized. Today, medication abortion, in which mifepristone and a second drug are taken early in pregnancy, is used in over half of pregnancy terminations in the United States. That proportion is expected to increase, even in states that have banned abortion, where growing use has put the pills at the center of legal and political battles.

For Baulieu, who continues work in his lab on the southern rim of Paris, his office overlooking a former asylum where the Marquis de Sade was held, the volatile developments are the latest turns in an eventful life. He transported guns as a teenager in the French Resistance during World War II, changing his name and taking refuge high in the Alps. He joined the Communist Party and then quit it in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. And he socialized with artists Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in the 1960s, beginning a pattern of friendships with painters, sculptors, musicians and actors that he said had helped inspire his scientific work.

That work has earned Baulieu many scientific honours, including the Lasker Award, often considered the most prestigious American prize in medicine. Recently, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, awarded him the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest distinction. Admirers have floated his name for a Nobel Prize. For his leading role in developing mifepristone, he has been hailed as a visionary by abortion-rights supporters and vilified as an incarnation of Hitler by opponents of abortion, a charge that he said he found especially jarring because he is Jewish.

Scientifically and medically, “women are not enough understood,” he said, adding: “I like women. Why not?”

On his dining room table are two recent gifts from Vice President Kamala Harris. Her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a breast cancer researcher, spent about a year working in Baulieu’s lab in the 1980s, collaborating with him on research about estrogen and a mammary gland protein. (She did not work on the abortion drug.) In 1970, Baulieu was visiting India with a group of intellectuals when a woman begging on a bridge in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, approached him while cradling her dead baby and holding the hand of a child who held another one of her children. “It really caused an emotion for me, which has persisted all my life,” he said. “I think always of Calcutta as something which has pushed me to really work hard.”

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