Australia Okays Abortion Drug Over Objections of Health Minister

CANBERRA, Australia — Australian doctors could be prescribing the abortion pill RU-486 within months after the Australian Parliament voted to lift a 10-year ban on the drug.

An amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Act in 1996 had placed a conditional ban on abortifacients such as RU-486, classifying them as restricted goods not to be imported or considered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Australian equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for medical use without the written approval of the Australian health minister.

But debate was re-ignited last November in the Medical Journal of Australia, with obstetrician and abortionist Dr. Caroline de Costa calling for a reversal on the ban.

This prompted four female senators, each from rival political parties, to introduce a bill to repeal the sections of legislation defining abortifacients as restricted goods, removing the ministerial veto and giving the Therapeutic Goods Administration final powers of authorization.

Australian legislators are normally expected to vote along party lines, but in a rare “conscience vote,” the bill passed easily through the Senate and House of Representatives in February.

No drug companies have applied to import RU-486 yet, although a number of doctors, including de Costa, already have applications before the Therapeutic Goods Administration to prescribe it.

The senators who introduced the bill insisted it had nothing to do with abortion but was solely concerned with the question of whether the health minister had the clinical and therapeutic expertise to properly exercise a veto power.

However it turned out to be a debate divided sharply down pro-life and pro-abortion lines.

Abortion is legal in some Australian states and technically illegal in others, but in practice it is available on demand — with one abortion for every 2.8 live births.

Sen. Fiona Nash, one of the RU-486 bill’s co-authors, told Parliament, “This is not a social-policy issue. This country has had that debate [in the 1970s].”

Added Nash, “We trust the [TGA] to evaluate and monitor around 50,000 items for the people of this nation, often dangerous drugs, and we believe they will do it safely and effectively.”

Tony Abbott

But Health Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic, told Parliament that the only reason the drug was being debated was because it involved abortion.

“I suspect that, for all of the scientific language, for all of the careful tip-toeing around this issue, in their hearts most people understand that this is an ugly business,” he said.

“Abortion is not just another medical procedure, and abortion drugs are not just another class of routine drug,” Abbott said. “This drug is rightly treated differently because it does not improve life and it does not extend life; it stops babies from being born.”

Sen. Bill Heffernan agreed that abortifacients don’t meet the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s definitions of a therapeutic good, and predicted that passage of the bill would set a dangerous precedent for euthanasia campaigners to exploit.

“It’s cute to say RU-486 is a therapeutic good,” Heffernan said. “RU-486 is designed to knock babies over.”

He added, “Eventually euthanasia will be legalized in Australia. It’s trendy. … And guess what will happen? There will be a pill and it will go to the TGA, not to knock over babies but to knock over people. And we will sit there and say, ‘Well, that’s a matter for the TGA. They’re an independent body.’”

The debate has revived a religious sectarianism within Australian politics not seen since the 1950s, the bulk of which has centered on the faith of Abbott, a former seminarian.

Bill co-author and Democrat party leader Lyn Allison referred to “the problem of a health minister who, for his own personal religious reasons, is not prepared to consider all of the evidence, both medical and social.”

During the often heated Parliamentary debate, Sen. Kerry Nettle wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Mr. Abbott: Get Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries,” which was sponsored by the state of Victoria’s branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) — a group whose national website claims to be “nourished by its roots in the Christian faith.”

Shannon Rees, the Victorian president of the YWCA, defended the slogan, and said she found it hard to believe Abbott could separate his Catholic beliefs from his job.

“The YWCA T-shirt is a declaration that women’s health, not religion, and definitely not a politician, should determine the availability of RU-486 in Australia,” she said.

Abbott described the message as “tacky” and intolerant, and told reporters that everyone’s beliefs had an impact on their actions.

“But to say that I’m incapable of making a decision on ordinary objective grounds because I’m a Catholic, but atheists and agnostics can … that’s a real smear against religion,” Abbott said.

Prime Minister John Howard, who voted against the bill, described Sen. Nettle’s behavior as a “silly undergraduate contribution” to the debate, and deeply offensive to Catholics.

Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell agreed.

“These sectarian anti-Catholic attacks by parliamentarians and cartoonists are cheap and nasty, revealing a poverty of argumentation and a fear the tide is turning,” the cardinal said.

Doctors Divided

RU-486 has received support from leading Australian medical groups including the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, president of the Australian Medical Association, told the senate committee hearing on the issue, “We believe the necessary research on non-surgical abortions has been done and has reassured us that the risks to women of using RU-486 are acceptably low. … It is certainly far safer to terminate a pregnancy with RU-486 than to take the pregnancy to term.”

Haikerwal’s comments prompted outrage from the Queensland branch of the Catholic Guild of St. Luke, which asked their 200 members to resign from both Australian medical organizations.

One Catholic doctor who resigned was Belinda Goodwin, a young Queensland mother of four who has been a member of the Australian Medical Association since 1999.

Goodwin described Haikerwal’s comments as outrageous, uneducated and contrary to the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.”

“I found the comments inappropriate and negligent because they didn’t take into account recent medical data that has shown how unsafe the drug is,” Goodwin said.

“What message is the AMA sending to women?” Goodwin asked. “That taking the life of their unborn baby is ‘safer’ — equating with ‘better’ — than performing the natural role of nurturing their own child?”

Helen Ransom writes from

Melbourne, Australia.