NEW DELHI-India has outlawed quinacrine sterilizations of women, shutting down the largest market for the controversial technique championed by two U.S. researchers throughout the Third World.
The government yesterday banned the import, manufacture, sale and distribution of quinacrine pellets for contraceptive use. Under the law, violators can be imprisoned for as long as three years and fined as much as 5,000 rupees ($116). Though quinacrine hasn't been officially approved by any government in the world, India appears to be the first country to explicitly make the sterilizations a crime.
Quinacrine, originally used as a malaria drug, has been used to chemically sterilize more than 100,000 women in about 20 developing coun- tries. Such irreversible sterilizations aren't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are opposed by women's groups and the World Health Organization, which says quinacrine may cause cancer. The two American researchers, Elton Kessel and Stephen D. Mumford, are sole distributors of the pellets world-wide.
The Indian government had been under pressure from women's groups to crack down on quinacrine. In March, following a public-interest lawsuit filed by women's-rights activists, the government said it was planning to ban quinacrine, but took five months to issue yesterday's official notification.
Brinda Karat, who spearheaded the court challenge as head of the All India Democratic Women's Association, welcomed the ban. But she urged the government to care for Indian women who have already been sterilized with quinacrine. "They were guinea pigs, and the government has a moral responsibility to monitor their health, now that it has admitted the drug is harmful," said Ms. Karat.
With a population that is expected to surpass China's early next century, India held great appeal for quinacrine's two American distrib- utors. An estimated 26,000 Indian women have been sterilized with quina- crine since 1979. That places India second to Vietnam, which halted its mass trial involving about 50,000 women in 1993 under WHO pressure.
J.K. Jain, a surgeon and former legislator who is India's leading quinacrine advocate, called the government ban "harmful to the interests of India to medical research efforts to improve the quality of life for women in the country." Mr. Jain said he will obey the law for now but will seek ways to overturn it. Mr. Mumford said he was "very disappointed" and criticized Indian authorities for failing to seek input from fertility-control experts.
India's decision is the latest blow to quinacrine's backers. Following a page-one article in The Wall Street Journal on June 18  about the use of the pellets to sterilize women, Sipharm Sesseln AG, the Swiss producer of the entire world supply of quinacrine pellets, said it would no longer make them.
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Updated: February 8, 1999