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Read This! It's (not) About Abortion!

I find this front-pager in today's NYT strange. The piece is about how a state-owned Chinese drug company has been busted for shipping out contaminated leukemia drugs that paralyzed some 200 Chinese patients. But the headline of the piece ("Tainted Drugs Liked to Maker of Abortion Pill"), the bulk of the story before the jump, and a large chunk of the piece after the jump is all about how this company is also the sole manufacturer of RU-486. This, despite the fact that the piece repeatedly states--including in the subhed--that no problems have been found with the abortion pill. Indeed, mifepristone is produced in a separate facility that passed FDA inspection in May.

Now I realize that, in this country, anything dealing with abortion is a politically touchy and therefore highly sexy subject. But before the Times tells us anything about the details of this latest Chinese-based drug-contamination tragedy/travesty, it spends four paragraphs of ultraprime real estate talking about an unrelated drug in a separate plant that has not to anyone's knowledge caused any problems.

Clearly the Times placed the emphasis where it did for a reason. Does it want American women and doctors to start freaking out about the purity of the nation's mifepristone stash? Unlikely. Is it trying to point up another threat to the eternally beleaguered RU-486 that none of us had yet realized? Possibly. Is it trying to gin up public pressure for increased oversight of Chinese plants to ensure that a similar problem doesn't arise with a drug already so politically vulnerable? Also a possibility.

But my strong suspicion is that the Times' primary concern was that readers wouldn't give two hoots about a story involving Chinese patients unless they tied it to an issue that Americans get really worked up over. Two-hundred paralyzed foreigners barely qualifies as news; hammer home a connection to America's most controversial pill, and you've got yourself an A1 grabber.

Now, to some degree the Times is correct in its reasoning. I mean, even if American leukemia patients started keeling over, you wouldn't see the same reaction as if one RU-486 patient suffered an excessive migraine. But being correct and being right aren't the same thing. And this strikes me as a slightly shabby way to manufacture a sexy story.

--Michelle Cottle