In April 1980, as part of a formal research project at the French pharmaceutical company Roussel-Uclaf for the development of glucocorticoid receptor antagonists, chemist Georges Teutsch synthesized mifepristone (RU-38486, the 38,486th compound synthesized by Roussel-Uclaf from 1949 to 1980; shortened to RU-486), which was discovered to also be a progesterone receptor antagonist. In October 1981, endocrinologist Étienne-Émile Baulieu, a consultant to Roussel-Uclaf, arranged tests of its use for medical abortion in 11 women in Switzerland by gynecologist Walter Herrmann at the University of Geneva’s Cantonal Hospital, with successful results announced on April 19, 1982. On October 9, 1987, following worldwide clinical trials in 20,000 women of mifepristone with a prostaglandin analogue (initially sulprostone or gemeprost, later misoprostol) for medical abortion, Roussel-Uclaf sought approval in France for their use for medical abortion, with approval announced on September 23, 1988.
On October 21, 1988, in response to antiabortion protests and concerns of majority (54.5%) owner Hoechst AG of Germany, Roussel-Uclaf’s executives and board of directors voted 16 to 4 to stop distribution of mifepristone, which they announced on October 26, 1988. Two days later, the French government ordered Roussel-Uclaf to distribute mifepristone in the interests of public health. French Health Minister Claude Évin explained: “I could not permit the abortion debate to deprive women of a product that represents medical progress. From the moment Government approval for the drug was granted, RU-486 became the moral property of women, not just the property of a drug company.” Following use by 34,000 women in France from April 1988 to February 1990 of mifepristone distributed free of charge, Roussel-Uclaf began selling Mifegyne (mifepristone) to hospitals in France in February 1990 at a price (negotiated with the French government) of US$48 (equivalent to $92.05 in 2018) per 600-mg dose.
Mifegyne was subsequently approved in Great Britain on July 1, 1991, and in Sweden in September 1992, but until his retirement in late April 1994, Hoechst AG chairman Wolfgang Hilger, a devout Roman Catholic, blocked any further expansion in availability. On May 16, 1994, Roussel-Uclaf announced it was donating without remuneration all rights for medical uses of mifepristone in the United States to the Population Council, which subsequently licensed mifepristone to Danco Laboratories, a new single-product company immune to antiabortion boycotts, which won FDA approval as Mifeprex on September 28, 2000.
On April 8, 1997, after buying the remaining 43.5% of Roussel-Uclaf stock in early 1997, Hoechst AG (US$30 (equivalent to $47.92 in 2018) billion annual revenue) announced the end of its manufacture and sale of Mifegyne (US$3.44 (equivalent to $5.5 in 2018) million annual revenue) and the transfer of all rights for medical uses of mifepristone outside of the United States to Exelgyn S.A., a new single-product company immune to antiabortion boycotts, whose CEO was former Roussel-Uclaf CEO Édouard Sakiz.[ In 1999, Exelgyn won approval of Mifegyne in 11 additional countries, and in 28 more countries over the following decade.
In France, the percentage of medical abortions of all abortions continued to increase: 38% in 2003, 42% in 2004, 44% in 2005, 46% in 2006, 49% in 2007 (vs. 18% in 1996) No long-term studies to evaluate the carcinogenic potential of mifepristone have been performed
Mifepristone is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system. It is on the complementary list and is included with a special note “where permitted under national law and where culturally acceptable”.