I’m sure everyone in the advocacy world wonders just how well the flood of digital petitions we dump on Congress by the millions is really working.   Whether they’re simply tallied–“Yea” in this spreadsheet column, “Nay” in the other before a staff member hits delete or the autoresponder thanks the voter and promises to take their opinions seriously.

Frankly, I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I have my skeptical moments.  And, in those moments when I  receive a particularly vapid digital plea, I’m certain many of these petitions are not taken too seriously.

What I do know for sure is that when a message of concern, printed on paper, packed by the hundreds of thousands or millions into boxes and then delivered by truck and  stacked at the recipient’s doorstep or in her office a mighty the effects are powerful.

Here’s an example and the story behind it, made even more salient by today’s raging debate over abortion.

The road toward FDA approval of the abortion pill RU-486, or mifepristone, spanned 20 years before it was available to women in the U.S.  For most of those years the drug had been legally available and used by more than 500,00 women in Europe.

Distribution of RU-486, prescribed for inducing abortion during the early weeks of pregnancy, was approved for use by the French government.  But in  1988, the Roussel-Uclaf, the developer and patent holder of the drug halted distribution.  Threatened  and intimidated into withholding the drug by vitriolic attacks and increasing threats of financial retribution from the Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups in Europe and the U.S. The lives of Roussel executives and their families were threatened.

The French Minister of Health immediately intervened and ordered the  company to return the drug to market.  But the immense pressures against the company continued, especially against any attempts to make RU-486 available in the US.

At that point feminist groups in the U.S. led by Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority entered the fray and launched a massive campaign.  As Smeal said at the time,  ““RU-486 can help save so many lives that we are determined to build a network both nationally and internationally to ensure that its research, development and distribution proceeds as fast as possible,”

A key part of that effort was to demonstrate Roussel-Uclaf  the company had enormous support on the part of physicians and women in the US.  To do that The Feminist Majority launched a direct mail petition campaign aimed at bolstering support for Roussel-Uclaf and encouraging them to stand up against the anti-abortion forces.

Here’s the letter and the accompanying petition I wrote in 33 years ago to mobilize support for the abortion pill and encourage Rossel-Uclaf and its parent company Hoechst A.G to continue distribution of the  drug in Europe and make a concerted effort to get it into the U.S.

The Petitions poured in.  By the time it ended 9 months later the effort had collected 900,000+ signed petitions.  The petitions were packed in boxes, flown to France and delivered to Rossel-Uclaf’s chief scientists and executives and delivered en masse by a delegation of American activists and physicians.

The Petitions along with growing public awareness and outcry proved a to be game changer. A spark plug that built a massive database of activists who supported a ten-year campaign.  A Campaign that ended in victory in September, A campaign that ended in victory September 28, 2000, when the FDA approved RU-486 as a method of early abortion.

Of course, the drug went on to demonstrate additional medical benefits when its effectiveness was proven as an effective treatment in a range other medical issues from entopic pregnancies to some forms of cancer, Cushing’s Syndrome, and ulcers.

Today RU-486 is available at pharmacies and by mail order in the U.S.

Mostt advocacy folks also know few victories remain permanent. The availability of the abortion pill and RU-486 (Mifipristone) is once again under attack by anti-abortion forces.



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