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When you think about Thanksgiving, eventually you remember grade-school lessons about the Pilgrims and why they came here in the first place. In large part, it was because they wanted to be free of religious tyranny.

It's a nice thought. I just wonder how free the Slepian family feels today.

I also wonder about all of the women who still don't have the freedom to make personal decisions in accord with their own religious or moral beliefsbecause anti-abortionists insist that they should define moral behavior for everyone.

The irony is that science -- which led to the construction of wooden ships back then -- offers the route to freedom again now. That's true even when the law itself proves powerless, as it was in protecting Dr. Barnett Slepian, the Amherst physician shot dead in his home last month because of his pro-choice beliefs.

Science already knows how to take the bulls-eye off the backs of doctors like Slepian. It knows how to disperse the gangs that block abortion-clinic entrances. It knows how to silence the bullhorns that intimidate women into forfeiting some of their freedom.

Final approval and manufacture of the drug RU-486 would make the abortion debate as moot as a debate now over Salem witches. It would take the spotlight off the dwindling number of physicians like Slepian, who refused to be bullied. It would take the focus off the clinics that fight to stay open because they realize that the right to choose means nothing if there's no place that offers the choice.

Once RU-486 is approved for sale here, advocates say any physician capable of treating a miscarriage would be capable of dispensing the drug that induces non-surgical abortions. That means it could be available in virtually any doctor's office, hospital or clinic. There would be no way for the anti-abortionists to know where or how to mobilize against it.

So what's the holdup for a drug long available and safely used in Europe? Why don't American women have access to a drug that was first supposed to be on the market here last year, then this year, but has yet to make it?

The problems are fear, intimidation and the threat of boycotts against timid manufacturers, boycotts that are the public-relations equivalent of burning a company at the stake.

The Population Council, a New York-based non-profit group, got the rights to RU-486 from its French manufacturer in 1994. After a series of setbacks, it licensed The Danco Group, a small group of entrepreneurs who came together solely for this effort, according to Council spokeswoman Sandra Waldman.

That strategy of finding a company dedicated solely to RU-486 was necessary to make it immune to threats of boycotts of other product lines. Yet Danco still has failed to come up with a manufacturer. And until it does, the Food and Drug Administration -- which already has deemed RU-486 safe -- can't approve the manufacturing process so that it can be made and sold here.

That doesn't mean a few American women aren't getting access to RU-486. Abortion Rights Mobilization, a New York group headed by Lawrence Lader, has made the drug available to 2,700 women in clinical trials around the country and aims to reach 10,000.

ARM has used laws that allow it to copy patented drugs as long as they're used for research and not for commercial purposes. Lader got FDA permission in 1996 to dispense the drug in clinical trials, including for use in easing difficult childbirths. The group has even been able to reduce the dosage while claiming a 97 percent success rate, an improvement over the 92 percent rate the Council achieved when testing the French version.

But the really interesting point is that Lader was able to find a manufacturer. After the Slepian murder, he won't identify the firm because he's "quite concerned about somebody throwing a bomb."

However, Lader said that ARM offered its manufacturer to Danco, but Danco didn't pursue the option. Danco spokesmen did not return phone calls.

Waldman says Danco has told her group that it expects to have the drug on the market by the end of next year. But given the national atmosphere of intolerance cloaked in religious righteousness, skeptics can be excused for wondering.

Americans see news stories of ayatollahs handing down repressive edicts and think that we're immune to such gross infringements on the rights of women.

But the very next story is about U.S. Catholic bishops trying to intimidate elected officials into elevating religious dogma above the law and making forced childbirth the punishment for sex.

Then we remember RU-486. And suddenly the idea of religious freedom -- or freedom from religious oppression -- seems about as far away as the new world must have seemed to the Pilgrims.

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