November 13, the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood of America (PPFA)
turned down a motion from its own Medical Committee which have put the
organization in the position of supporting unethical human experimentation. The
drug in question was quinacrine chemical sterilization. The Medical Committee
was prepared to involve PPFA affiliates in human trials of quinacrine before
sufficient toxicology laboratory studies were completed. The Board voted that
participation in trials would be considered if and only when the FDA gave the
go-ahead. The vote is a victory for women’s health advocates, whose timely
intervention helped prevent Planned Parenthood from making a wrong and very
dangerous decision. Coercive medical research on concentration camp inmates and
prisoners of war during World War II gave rise to the Nuremberg codes and later
the Helsinki Declaration on human experimentation. This declaration states that
"In any research on human beings, each potential subject must be adequately
informed of the aims, methods, anticipated benefits and potential hazards of the
study and the discomfort it may entail." Furthermore, subjects should be
free to withdraw from participation at any time and be advised of alternatives,
including non-treatment, in language they can understand. Doctors should obtain
their freely given informed consent, preferably in writing.
the Nuremberg trials Nazi doctors were taken to task for their chemical
sterilization trials on women, which included intrauterine instillation of
formaldehyde and phenol. Now over 40 years later, over 100,000 women in 19
countries, most of them in the Third World, have been sterilized with quinacrine
pellets. These trials have largely taken place in the absence of adequate
informed consent, medical screening and follow-up, in violation of the Helsinki
main promoters of the quinacrine method are two population control and
anti-immigrant extremists from the United States, Drs. Stephen Mumford and Elton
Kessel, who have the backing of wealthy donors. These include Donald Collins,
Sally Epstein, and Leland Fikes, all supporters of the conservative Federation
for American Immigration Reform. Donald Collins is also on the board of the
right-wing Scaife Family Foundation.
developed as an anti-malarial treatment, quinacrine is a known mutagen and
preliminary laboratory studies point to potential risks of cancer, birth defects
and toxicity. In addition, quinacrine may be less effective than surgical
sterilization and may increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy. Injected into the
uterus with a modified IUD inserter, quinacrine works by burning the fallopian
tubes, resulting in scar tissue that blocks the egg’s passage into the uterus.
Quinacrine is much cheaper than surgical sterilization, and thus is viewed by
its promoters as a cost-effective weapon in the war against population growth.
The Wall Street Journal quotes Mumford as saying that the drug is
"essential to population growth-control;" Mumford, in fact, believes
that overpopulation is a more serious national security threat than nuclear
has not been approved for sterilization purposes by any drug regulatory agency,
including the World Health Organization and the FDA. Nevertheless, Mumford and
Kessel have carried the pellets around the world in suitcases, recruiting local
doctors willing to engage in their vast unethical experiment. In Viet Nam alone,
over 30,000 women were sterilized until the government finally stopped the
trials. In India more than 10,000 quinacrine sterilizations have been performed
in the state of West Bengal alone. The two most zealous quinacrine supporters in
India espouse openly anti-Muslim politics; poor Muslim women, in fact, are their
international family planning community now widely accepts that many quinacrine
trials have violated based medical and informed consent protocols. Press
reports, including an award-winning piece by Alix Freedman in the Wall Street
Journal, have helped to document the extent of quinacrine abuse. Last year
women’s groups and public health specialists in India succeeded in getting the
Supreme Court of India to ban further trials there, and women activists in Chile
secured a similar ban from national health authorities in that country. Yet
Mumford and Kessel continue to operate with impunity. Their latest strategy is
to target the United States.
themselves as ‘pro-choice’ and falsely depicting the women’s health opposition
as "handmaidens of the Vatican," Mumford and Kessel have set out to
woo abortion and family planning providers in the U.S. This past April, for
example, they showed up at the National Abortion Federation meeting in Atlanta.
given the intersection between population control and family planning interests
in this country, quinacrine is being taking seriously as a potential method.
With private population control funding, Family Health International in North
Carolina is now performing the laboratory tests required for the official FDA
process. Without that funding, it is doubtful such tests would have ever taken
place since the results of earlier lab studies were not promising.
more cautious among quinacrine’s supporters urge that these tests be completed
before any further human trials are conducted. The motion put before the PPFA
Board of Directors would have jumped the gun, endorsing human trials at PPFA
sites before sufficient toxicology results were in.
motion might have passed if a number of prominent pro-choice women’s health
advocates and organizations had not organized a major campaign to alert the
Board to the serious consequences of such an action. Their letter to the Board
not only opposes human trials in the absence of completed laboratory tests, but
also makes the point that even if the lab results indicate no specific toxicity,
the "drug is already so tainted in the minds of so many women, that the
credibility of those institutions embarking upon clinical trials would suffer
severely." In addition, it remarks on quinacrine’s easy potential for abuse
and calls for scarce research funds to be redirected to more promising
technologies, such as microbicides which could prevent sexually transmitted
the PPFA Board heeded the message and voted the right way for now, the
quinacrine battle is far from over. Currently,in Chile the Ministry of Health is
considering rescinding its ban and allowing a new human trial of quinacrine in
public hospitals. Because they have big money behind them, Mumford and Kessel
will no doubt continue their campaign to win support for quinacrine in the U.S.
Approval here would help give them legitimacy overseas; they hope, for example,
that it would help lift the Supreme Court ban in India.
research on quinacrine, including the present laboratory tests, only serves to
legitimize the illegitimate process by which the drug has been used to
experiment on poor women. It sends a message that there is no punishment for
those who conduct unethical drug experiments on human subjects. Instead of
further research, the priority now should be to use the Helsinki Declaration and
other internationally accepted codes of conduct to hold Stephen Mumford and
Elton Kessel accountable for their actions.
Betsy Hartmann is the Director of the Population and Development Program at
Hampshire College and a founding member of the Committee on Women, Population
and the Environment (CWPE) and the Quinacrine Alert Network. For further
information on quinacrine, visit CWPE’s web page, www.cwpe.org.