By TANYA PLIBERSEK
For many Australian women the decision to terminate a pregnancy will be the most difficult they’ll ever make.
But it should always be one for the woman herself with the support of her family and doctor. Its not a decision that any government should make for her.
At the moment the majority of terminations in Australia are surgical, usually performed under sedation in hospitals or special clinics.
A much smaller number are “medical” terminations where mifepristone, better known as RU486, a synthetic steroid, is used to end early pregnancy.
Mifepristone is on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines and its use has been endorsed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. It was first registered in France and China in 1988 and is now registered in about 50 countries including the UK, the USA and New Zealand. Tens of millions of women around the world have used it.
No termination is without risks, but the risk of dying is higher from taking viagra than from medical termination.
An important difference when comparing medical and surgical termination of pregnancy may be that a woman need not travel to a hospital or clinic but can be supervised by a doctor who has had special training and be in her home with family support.
This would be particularly beneficial for women living in the country who wouldn’t have to travel long distances and stay away from home overnight or longer and find extra money for transport and accommodation.
As health minister I believe that mifepristone and its companion drug misoprostol should go through the same rigorous processes as any drug allowed to be used in Australia.
In the past, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has taken a different view. In 2006, when health minister, Mr Abbott voted in Parliament to maintain his veto power over RU486 – he wanted to keep RU486 a special case so he could prevent it being imported into Australia.
Since a 1996 political deal between PM John Howard and conservative Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, the health minister was given the power to effectively ban the importation of the drug. But a 2006 conscience vote led by a cross-party coalition of women MPs overturned the veto. Current Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton also voted to maintain the veto.
Since then, RU486 has been available in Australia through a small number of doctors who have had to specially import the drug. In August, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved an application by non-profit organisation MS Health, to import the drug, making it much more accessible.
As Opposition Leader, Mr Abbott has for months ducked questions on the TGA listing of RU486. But that all changed last week when Mamamia publisher, Mia Freedman, went on ABC radio and said Mr Abbott, as the aspiring prime minister, needed to clarify his position on RU486. “Because he’s never addressed that on the record … it sort of lingered and festered like this bit of a suspicious issue among women.”
Mr Abbott responded, saying that as health minister, he did not receive any applications to regulate RU486. He said, “Had any such application come before me, I would have dealt with it on the basis of the science and the expert advice.” In fact Mr Abbott misrepresented advice given to him by the Chief Medical Officer at the time.
And his latest sound-bite on this vital issue skirts around what he did and said when he was a Howard government minister. If Mr Abbott has changed his view on abortion and RU486, he should tell people.
Otherwise we can only conclude that he still believes that “abortion is the easy way out.”
Tanya Plibersek is the Federal Minister for Health and Member for Sydney.
Editor’s Note: While Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is unfortunately unavailable to write a response to Minister Plibersek at this stage, his office has provided Mamamia with the following comment: “Administration of RU486, as with other drugs, is a matter for the Therapeutic Goods Administration (the TGA) and the Coalition will not change that.”