The pill in Rebekah Buell's hand was only the size of a dime, but it felt bone-crushingly heavy as she looked at it through her tears.
"Just because you're sad doesn't mean you're making the wrong decision," said the Planned Parenthood counselor by her side.
The words looped through her mind; Buell should ignore her emotions temporarily to solve her problems for a lifetime.
Just suck it up, she told herself. It's going to be over soon. So she swallowed the pill.
Instead of relief, however, she felt instant regret. Walking to her car outside the Sacramento, Calif., facility that day, she used her cell phone like a life raft, frantically googling for a way to undo the harm she had just committed with that one reluctant gulp.
What she found in March 2013 launched her into a small but growing company of women who have successfully reversed their pill-induced chemical abortions and delivered healthy babies through a groundbreaking technique called Abortion Pill Reversal (APR).
A Changed Mind
Dr. Matthew Harrison, a soft-spoken 50-year-old family physician in Salisbury, N.C., has always considered himself pro-life. For nine years, he offered free prenatal care to abortion-vulnerable women outside abortion facilities. Currently, the full-time director of a nearby hospitalist program is opening several prenatal clinics in the Charlotte area, as well as helping several pregnancy resource centers (PRC) achieve full medical-clinic status by adding ultrasound machines and trained sonography staff.
Still, Harrison was an unknown on the national pro-life scene in 2006; the recent Presbyterian-to-Catholic convert simply protected preborn babies whenever he got the chance.
And as it happened, the chance of a lifetime walked through his office door one Friday afternoon.
A 20-year-old aspiring nurse named Ashley was seven weeks pregnant and desperate to turn the clock back 36 hours. That's when, at the urging of her boyfriend, she had taken the first of the two pills that would chemically abort her child.
First came the mifepristone (also known as Mifeprex) to starve her growing fetus of progesterone—a critical pregnancy hormone that preborn babies require to live and grow. Ashley, despite her reservations, had taken that at an abortion facility. If she had followed instructions, she then would have swallowed a second pill called misoprostol (sometimes labeled as Cytotec) approximately two days later. This chemical compound causes intense uterine contractions, eventually expelling the dead baby anywhere from four hours to several days afterward.
But Ashley didn't follow instructions. She didn't really want an abortion and had only taken the mifepristone out of pressured desperation. So she called the abortionist and asked if it was too late. Yes, he told her: Your baby will die even if you don't finish this abortion. Or if it survives, it will have physical or mental birth defects—or both.
Ashley pressed on, confessing her actions to her mother. Together, they called a local PRC, which then called Harrison. He agreed to see her, thinking he could only offer verbal comfort.
Finding the Key
At that time, RU-486 had been legal in France for 18 years. It gained legal traction and popularity around Europe throughout the 1990s and was approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in September 2000. Hailed as convenient and private, doctors typically prescribe RU-486 up to 63 days (nine weeks) after a woman's last menstrual cycle.
Handing a woman two pills is easier than performing an invasive surgical abortion—and according to Planned Parenthood, still lucrative at up to $800 a prescription. The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion research group, says 59 percent of American abortionists offered RU-486 in 2011, with 17 percent using it as their sole abortion method. Similarly, 23 percent of all nonhospital abortions and 36 percent of early first-trimester abortions stemmed from RU-486 that same year.
In 2001, Guttmacher reported that a mere 6 percent of abortion-minded females took the pills. But by 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the abortion pill accounted for 23 percent of all abortions in the U.S. (around 200,000 procedures), even as the overall number of abortions dropped.
Harrison had never before seen a pregnant woman halfway through an RU-486 abortion. So he prayed.
"This is not something taught in medical school or residency," he wrote in a 2013 article for LifeSiteNews. "In fact, we were taught that just about any problem in the first trimester is essentially untreatable to save the baby, to let nature take its course.
"But this wasn't nature, and I had this gnawing feeling that something could be done."
He reminded himself of how mifepristone works. It's what scientists call a "receptor antagonist." Essentially, mifepristone employs chemical trickery, making the woman's body think it's progesterone. By attaching itself to a progesterone receptor, but not actually having any progesterone to give, mifepristone starves the placenta—the tissue that feeds preborn babies—of nutrition.
"(Mifepristone) … fills the progesterone receptor with a key that will not turn the lock," Harrison wrote. "It is a very effective blocker, and there was no known antidote."
That's when he remembered his research in basic protein receptor biology. If he could inundate Ashley's system with progesterone—"the 'good' keys," he says—could he possibly beat the mifepristone and fill the receptors with "working keys"?
After explaining the risks (it might not work, it had never been done, possible bleeding, etc.), Harrison injected his new patient with 200 milligrams of progesterone and prayed for the best.
"She showed so much bravery in saying, 'I don't care if there's a risk, I will do whatever I can to help save my baby's life,' " he tells Citizen.
Though Ashley did bleed that weekend, her daughter's heart kept beating. After seeing Harrison for twice-weekly progesterone injections until her twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, Ashley delivered Kaylie—a full-term, healthy girl with no defects or complications. Kaylie is now eight years old and in third grade.
Without realizing it, Harrison had found the key to giving first-trimester babies an eleventh-hour reprieve.
Three years later and three thousand miles away in Escondido, Calif., Dr. George Delgado received a similarly frantic phone call.
A pregnant woman in El Paso, Texas, had taken mifepristone, and like Buell and Ashley, had changed her mind. Could Delgado help her?
Delgado, a 53-year-old Catholic family physician, thought he could—and though he had never heard of Harrison or the RU-486 reversal method, he found a doctor in Texas who was familiar with progesterone therapy. Together, they built a protocol for the woman, who eventually delivered a healthy child.
That success set Delgado to thinking. As the medical director of Culture of Life Family Services (COLFS) in San Diego County, he consistently used pro-life principles in his medical practice. Why not expand those offerings with APR?
The Abortion Pill Reversal Team, which Delgado put together, is a network of 270 doctors nationwide, including Harrison, that has helped 297 women from 45 states and 13 countries attempt to reverse their chemical abortions. So far, Harrison says, 108 of those women have given birth, and another 70 are continuing healthfully in their pregnancies (the remaining 119 miscarried). That translates into an approximate 60 percent success rate.
Despite abortionists' dire predictions, the worst defect a post-APR child has suffered so far has been a port-wine stain birthmark.
"The gratitude (the women) express of even having the option of reversal—it's really wonderful," Delgado tells Citizen. "If we are able to successfully reverse (the abortion), their feelings of sadness and remorse and guilt often go away, replaced by love and commitment and acceptance of God's plan. It's a beautiful thing to be a part of a transformation like that."
The process starts when a woman, typically halfway through her RU-486 regimen, changes her mind and finds the APR team, usually online. She calls the 24-hour hotline staffed by eight nurses. The one taking the call discusses the woman's situation, including how long ago she ingested the mifepristone—hopefully 24 hours or less—and her location.
The APR team then contacts the closest doctor in the network to take the case. Treatment involves having the woman take the progesterone orally, vaginally or by injection, usually every day until the end of the first trimester. If the process fails, she normally miscarries two weeks later.
APR Nurse Manager Debbie Bradel, RN, says the team has only failed in "a handful of cases" to find a doctor willing to perform the reversal.
"If we had a bell in here, I would ring it every time (a reversal baby is born)," she told a weekly pro-life TV show this June. She and her team have fielded 850 calls since the hotline opened in May 2012.
COLFS, a registered nonprofit, covers the cost of APR for women whose insurance doesn't cover the service, or for those who can't pay.
In December 2012, Delgado co-authored an article detailing a small study on APR in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, a peer-reviewed journal. "I'm always surprised when I give talks how many people don't know (about APR), even prolife medical professionals," he says.
To that end, the team has created kits for APR-trained physicians. Each one outlines the protocol and contains standard medical and consent forms, as well as instructions for obtaining the tools necessary for administering progesterone. Medical professionals must purchase and keep their own progesterone.
The APR network has grown so much since 2012 that Arizona and Arkansas passed laws this year requiring abortionists to inform women that chemical abortion might be reversible. Arkansas' law took effect in July, while Arizona's is currently in litigation (see sidebar).
That resulting media and political awareness has brought opposition and criticism from the scientific community, with many calling it "junk science."
"Medical people can be skeptical when anything new comes along," Delgado says. "I respect that. But others refuse to have an open mind. If we acknowledge that women do change their minds, that is evidence itself that abortion isn't always a good thing like they say."
Delgado and Harrison, who together have personally reversed chemical abortions for about a dozen women so far, are currently working on a second case-study article for medical journals. They plan to conduct a longitudinal study on APR in the future.
Buell, who is now a 21-year-old senior at William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., wants everyone she meets to know about APR, its potential and how the team helped her. After calling Bradel and finding a doctor, Buell, already a mother of one, began twice-weekly progesterone treatments. On Oct. 20, 2013, she gave birth to a completely healthy boy named Zechariah, and now talks about her reversal story "every day," both informally and through official speeches at PRCs , churches and the National March for Life.
"My main goal is to instill hope in these girls, even ones who have the abortion," Buell tells Citizen. "I want to tell them, 'You can do it, you don't need abortion, you don't need to kill your child to succeed in life. Having a child isn't going to ruin your life; it's just going to change it."
In the current political climate, Delgado realizes his work may not be popular. Someday, however, he believes both the sound science of APR and worth of preborn babies will be acknowledged.
"People are going to look back and say, 'This group of doctors had a lot of foresight,'" he says. "'They were faithful, they didn't bend to the whims of society. They stood up for life. Because of them, babies' lives have been saved.' "