Let’s Keep the Counsellors Honest and True

Pregnancy counsellors must declare their stance on abortion.

Australian women have just inched one step closer to gaining access to RU486. Last week, Cairns-based obstetrician Dr Caroline De Costa received word that her application to become an authorised prescriber of the medication had been approved by the national drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Despite the fanfare surrounding February’s passage of the cross-party bill that removed the Heath Minister’s veto over the TGA’s decision to register the drug, pregnant women are still awaiting access to the medication – as a morning-after pill, to assist in labour or to terminate a very early pregnancy without surgery – because no company has submitted an application.

While De Costa’s approval as an authorised prescriber comes with restrictions that preclude her from supplying other medical practitioners with the drug, or accepting patients living outside far north Queensland, it both signals and further strengthens the case for TGA registration of the drug when an application is finally submitted. This is because to say “yes” to De Costa, the TGA has to evaluate the drug’s safety and efficacy against the seriousness of the condition, and the acceptability of existing therapies to treat it. Signing off on her application signals the regulator’s acceptance of the veracity and quality of the research data demonstrating the drug’s safety and efficacy that De Costa was required to submit to support her application. This bodes well for requests before the TGA from other medicos wanting to become authorised prescribers and an application by a pharmaceutical company – when one finally is made – to make the drug more broadly available.

Pro-choice supporters would also have been heartened by the recent elevation of the staunchly pro-choice Louise Asher to the position of deputy leader of the Liberal Party in Victoria to join pro-choice leader Robert Doyle. With the Victorian Labor Party having recently affirmed its commitment to amend the Victorian Crimes Act to make abortion legal when a woman gives her informed consent, the stage is set for change after the election in November.

Elsewhere, however, pro-life forces are making their influence felt. As in Victoria, the Crimes Act in NSW prohibits abortion. Earlier this month, the Crown prosecutor in the case of NSW doctor Dr Suman Sood moved to amend the indictment to include a second charge of administering a drug with “intent to procure a miscarriage”. If Sood is convicted, women’s access to safe, legal terminations could be reduced in NSW through the narrowing of the reach of the 1971 and 1995 common law judgements that enable lawful abortion.

But perhaps nowhere have pro-life forces been more successful than in their co-option of the word “counselling” to pursue their goal of reducing women’s access to abortion.

In addition to being on the Federal Government payroll to the tune of $295,000 in 2005 and 2006, the pro-life Australian Federation of Pregnancy Support Services (formerly the Australian Federation of Pro-Life Pregnancy Support Services) is manoeuvring to win the tender to provide a national telephone helpline to support women to keep pregnancies. The helpline, one of two recently announced “pregnancy support measures”, is seen as compensation for Health Minister Tony Abbott’s loss of control over RU486.

Will AFPSS win the helpline tender? They’re certainly in contention, because while the Government has ruled out abortion providers from tendering for the contract to ensure the provision of a “non-directive” service, organisations with a religious or philosophical opposition to abortion have been deemed to have the professionalism and even-handedness necessary to apply.

While some Australians might question the appropriateness of the Federal Government coat of arms being attached to a telephone hotline staffed by a service with a principled opposition to advising or referring for abortion, few would dispute the right of women to be told up-front and unequivocally if a service will provide accurate information about, and refer for, abortion. Yet there is no consumer protection regulation in any state that prohibits pregnancy clinics from falsely advertising their services. Because the services don’t levy a fee, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission cannot charge them with engaging in misleading or deceptive advertising.

Last year, Pregnancy Counselling Australia, which has links to international pro-life pregnancy centres, sent posters to GPs across the country. Depicting the photo of a young attractive woman chewing her nails the text read: “Pregnant? Upset?” “Free, confidential, compassionate, counselling” on a 24-hour basis was promised to women who rang the number provided. While the vast majority of GPs are pro-choice, many were fooled by the poster and the accompanying covering letter that implied that Pregnancy Counselling Australia offered a service that would support and refer women for all three options with an unplanned pregnancy: adoption, continuing and abortion. As Pregnancy Counselling Australia requested, many put the poster in their consulting suites and waiting rooms.

The Democrats have developed a private member’s bill to ensure truth in advertising when it comes to pregnancy support services. To become law, this bill – or one like it – will need cross-party support. The question is: after the battle over RU486, do pro-choice activists and politicians have the energy to battle as hard as will be required to achieve basic consumer protection for pregnant women?

Publication history

Let's Keep the Counsellors Honest and True  The Age