Opposing Quinacrine, Upholding Choice

Author(s): Anne Hendrixson
Date Published: July 17, 2006
Source: (Political Environments #7, Fall/Winter 1999-2000)

The chemical sterilant quinacrine has met with a great deal of resistance in the past year. Last October, the FDA warned Mumford and Kessel, the two-man team responsible for quinacrine distribution and promotion worldwide, to "halt all distribution of any and all quinacrine under your control, identify its location, and voluntarily destroy it under FDA supervision," (FDA warning letter, October 14, 1998). Also last year, quinacrine was banned in India and Chile, largely due to pressure on those governments from concerned women's health advocates.

These deterrents to quinacrine use, rather than forming the basis for a complete halt to its further use and development, have forced the question of whether quinacrine merits animal study. The FDA cited WHO's statement that "quinacrine for non-surgical female sterilization should not occur until completion of toxicology, genotoxicity and possibly carcinogencity testing," and the bans in India and Chile as the reason for the halt to the drug's distribution. By stating that quinacrine cannot be used until conclusive animal studies are completed, the FDA warning inadvertently suggests that further testing is warranted and lends the drug a legitimacy, uncomplicated by discussion of its history of widespread abuse. Although the FDA warning fulfilled its purpose of helping to protect US women from being the subjects in Mumford and Kessel's vast quinacrine experiment, the warning ended up serving Mumford and Kessel's designs for their campaign. Mumford and Kessel are using this warning to leverage support for their argument that quinacrine deserves the money and resources to complete animal testing and make quinacrine widely available. Currently, Family Health International is conducting laboratory studies of the drug, apparently with funding from private population control interests.

Mumford and Kessel tirelessly bid for the approval of quinacrine from regulatory bodies, feminist groups, and doctors, adopting the feminist language of 'reproductive choice' as their media message. They are promoting the drug to abortion providers and family planning agencies in the US to achieve their goal of making quinacrine available to women in the US. In fact, this last spring they recruited Duke University graduate students to create a marketing strategy for quinacrine based on women's health advocates' attitudes toward the drug. They distributed their propaganda at the National Abortion Federation conference in April 1999, the Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association Meeting in May, and attended numerous other conferences to promote quinacrine among health practitioners and feminist groups. (See their web page, www.quinacrine.com, for a complete listing of their promotional tour.)

Their message is beginning to make an impact. The Reproductive Health Technologies Project in Washington, DC, an essentially pro-choice advocacy group for RU-486 and other reproductive technologies, began this year to deliberate on whether or not to support the development of quinacrine. So far it has not come out in favor. In addition, Planned Parenthood has considered whether to support further trials. A PPFA Ad Hoc Committee on Quinacrine Sterilization recommended that a full-scale investigational study of the safety and efficacy of quinacrine sterilization be conducted in the US and that similar studies be done in several foreign countries. (see Quinacrine Victory page 14).

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As Mumford and Kessel promote themselves as feminists, cloaking quinacrine in the language of choice for women, they label the opposition to quinacrine as 'anti-choice' and cite the resistance as coming from the Vatican and anti-abortion groups. By strategically placing quinacrine within the framework of the abortion debate, Mumford and Kessel have strengthened their appeal to abortion doctors and to feminist groups. Further, they put feminists who oppose quinacrine in a defensive position, trying to regain credibility.

It is extremely important that pro-choice advocates claim the moral high ground on quinacrine and not cede it to the anti-abortion movement. If abortion providers start supporting quinacrine testing in the US, it will not only have grave consequences for women, but will be a political disaster, giving the anti-abortion movement another weapon for its arsenal. This is a crucial moment to challenge Mumford and Kessel's campaign and protest animal and human testing to legitimize the drug.

Anne Hendrixson, social change activist and researcher, is the Coordinator of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.