By Hilary White

ROME, November 27, 2009 ( – The Italian Senate has blocked the sale of RU 486 in the country pending investigations into the abortion drug's safety. Antonio Tomassini, the leader of the committee studying the issue cited the “many doubts” surrounding the drug and the panel voted to postpone its distribution.

This summer the Italian Pharmaceuticals Agency (AIFA) approved the drug, stipulating that it must be administered by physicians in hospitals up to the 49th day of pregnancy, but not sold over the counter in pharmacies. This decision came despite AIFA documentation that noted the deaths of at least nine women who had taken it. In 2008, the Italian Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics reported 16 maternal deaths associated with RU 486.

The committee said it is also concerned with the drug's compatibility with Italian law that allows abortion on demand up to 90 days of pregnancy. Maurizio Sacconi, the Welfare and Health Minister, said, “Italy's abortion laws were not conceived with a pharmaceutical solution in mind.”

But Italian Undersecretary of Health, Eugenia Roccella, said that the government is in no way rejecting RU 486 on “ideological” grounds. The issue most at stake is safety for women, she said. It is essential to ensure “the presence of the physician throughout the abortion procedure, to avoid the side effects that pose a serious risk,” she said.

In 2006 the Berlusconi government banned the import of the drug that has been associated with the deaths of at least 5 women in the US.

In the same year, the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, rebuked Italy's health minister, Livia Turco, for her support of RU 486 which it called a weapon for “carefree murder.” Turco had called the drug a “safe and alternative method” of abortion.

Turco called this week's decision to delay, “the most obscurantist fury to block the marketing of a drug already used by millions of women, for many years.”

This summer, in the wake of the AIFA decision to approve the drug, the Vatican issued a statement saying that those who use the drug risk automatic excommunication. In strongly Catholic Italy, at least 70 per cent of physicians refuse to commit abortions on moral grounds.