FRANCE – Etienne-Emile Baulieu, inventor of the abortion pill, the “moral property of women”

Born in 1926, Professor Etienne-Emile Baulieu is a pioneer in hormonal research and the inventor of the abortion pill (RU 486), used worldwide by tens of millions of women. Member of the Academy of Sciences in France and in the United States, crowned with numerous prizes, this doctor/researcher, always attentive to the cause of women, continues to go every day to his laboratory in Kremlin-Bicêtre (Val-de-France in the Marne), with a continuing thirst for discovery.

He is the son of a remarkable doctor, Léon Blum, an Alsatian Jew born under the German occupation, well before the war of 1914-18, who died in 1930, when Baulieu was 3 years old, and of an independent, feminist mother, Thérèse Lion, a lawyer and marvellous pianist, who spoke perfect English and who frequented the circle of suffragettes in London before devoting herself to the education of her children.

Thus opens this wonderful six-page article (in French) in Le Monde. Here is a summary: 

Age 96 this year, Emile Baulieu continues his research in aid of sexual liberty for women. Born in 1926, he is a pioneer of research on hormones and inventor of the abortion pill originally called RU486 (now called mifepristone, originally produced by Roussel Uclaf). He is a member of the Academy of Sciences in France and the USA, recipient of many prizes, and continues each day to go to his laboratory, with his thirst for discovery intact.

He was raised in an exclusively female environment (mother, grandmother, sisters) but followed in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor. He and his family made it through the second world war partly by changing their name to hide that they were Jewish and so that their history could not be traced.

He studied medicine and chemistry after the war, read Marx, became an idealist, had a lot of comrades in the Resistance, and joined the Communist Party. He married at age 20. That phase of his life ended with Stalin’s death in 1953, with a lot of information coming out about the crimes of Stalin’s regime, especially with the invasion of Hungary in 1956.

As he got involved in medicine and research, he had the chance to work with some amazing people in both London and the USA, and got involved in sophisticated methods for analysing sex hormones. But the most important thing that happened was when he was invited to meet Gregory Pincus in the USA, who developed the contraceptive pill.

In India, in 1970, he discovered that a woman was dying every three minutes from a badly carried out abortion. In an interview in 2008 he said he dreamed that humanity was able to live the longest amount of time possible – in good health – and having seen women and their infants dying in India, he wanted to do what he could to make that possible.

And then came the adventure of RU486, the abortion pill, which made invasive surgery to do an abortion unnecessary, which he developed with the support of Roussel Uclaf, where he had refused to become the director in order to protect his freedom. Unexpectedly, in addition to great praise, he was met with two very negative responses, one describing him as Mengele, the Nazi doctor, and the other from an anti-abortion professor who accused him of inventing a human pesticide. Roussel decided to renounce his research in response to these reactions, but it was rescued by Claude Evin, then French Minister of Health (1988-91), who declared that RU486 was the moral property of women. This resulted in the pills continuing to be developed, produced and sold by Roussel Uclaf.

Now he’s doing research on treating Alzheimer’s. He says he hopes each day to discover something new and important for humanity, and for himself too…

SOURCE: Le Monde, by Annick Cojean, 7 May 2023 + Photo by Julie Glassberg