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The State

Woman Dies Four Days After Taking Abortion Pill

September 20, 2003|Steve Hymon and Carol Pogash | Times Staff Writers

LIVERMORE, Calif. — The Alameda County coroner is investigating whether the death of an 18-year-old woman Wednesday was connected to the RU-486 abortion pill that she had taken four days earlier.

An autopsy performed Thursday on the body of Holly Patterson of Livermore did not reveal the cause of death, said Frank Gentle, supervising coroner and investigator for the county.

"Tests are going to be run and specimens sent to various labs, and we'll wait for the results," Gentle said.

Results may not be available for several weeks.

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday said the drug, first approved in the U.S. in 2000, has not been directly linked to any deaths, but two women have died of other complications after taking it.

One of the cases occurred during a clinical trial in Canada. In the other case, a woman in the United States with an ectopic pregnancy, in which the fertilized egg grows outside the uterus, bled to death.

Danco Laboratories, the manufacturer of RU-486, sent a letter to the FDA in April 2002 reminding doctors that the drug was never intended for women with ectopic pregnancies.

Gentle would not say whether Patterson had had such a pregnancy, nor whether she had aborted.

Patterson died at a Pleasanton hospital, four days after she was given the drug at a local Planned Parenthood clinic. Planned Parenthood officials issued a short statement acknowledging the death but saying the cause hadn't been determined.

Helen Wilson, Patterson's stepmother, said the family hadn't known about her pregnancy and that she apparently decided to use RU-486 on the advice of friends.

"Holly died because she suffered in silence, because she wouldn't talk to her parents or anyone who would fight for her," Wilson said. "She talked to people she knew would keep her secret, and they operated with information taken from the Internet and Planned Parenthood.

"She fought like hell for her life," Wilson said. "We want the word out, we want people to know how dangerous this is."

RU-486 is actually two treatments, according to Planned Parenthood's Web site.

In the first part, a patient receives a dose of a drug that blocks hormones needed to maintain pregnancy.

In the second part, two days later, the patient inserts a vaginal suppository that causes the uterus to expel the fetus.

Patterson took the first drug on Saturday and began having severe cramps on Sunday. Her boyfriend took her to a hospital, where she was given painkillers and released, the family said.

It remains unclear if she took the second drug. In pain and bleeding, Patterson returned to the hospital early Wednesday and died that afternoon, her family said.

According to its Web site, Planned Parenthood tells women that the pill is an option for those who want to have an abortion outside a clinic. The site tells women that RU-486 is less invasive than a traditional abortion.

The organization also warns that the drug is inappropriate for women suffering from an array of problems, including blood-clotting disorders.

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Pogash reported from Livermore, Hymon from Los Angeles.

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