Lift the Ban on RU486!

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but those who’d hoped the giving spirit might have affected the Prime Minister when it came to the abortion drug RU 486 have found their stockings sadly empty. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister emerged from a Liberal party room meeting to inform the media that the vote expected by the end of next week was cancelled. The Coalition’s pre-Christmas legislative agenda was crowded with issues far more important than women’s health. Those hoping to find out whether Australian patients will finally get access to a pharmaceutical that doesn’t just terminate very early pregnancies, but is used in the treatment of breast cancer and endometriosis, would just have to wait.

But the truth is that if the PM had strongly defined what the vote was really about – and insisted the Coalition take a principled stand on the issue – the vote could have been wrapped up in less than an hour. The vote was never about abortion, or even the safety or effectiveness of RU 486. It was about who should decide if RU 486 is safe and effective enough to be marketed in Australia: the Health Minister or the Therapeutics Goods Administration. This no-brainer of a question is essentially one about good governance. How worrying that the Prime Minister determined his colleagues needed the entire holiday period to consider their answer, and a conscience vote on the issue when they return to work 2006.

So how are events likely to play out next year? John Howard has promised a conscience vote, but whether it will take place on a Democrats amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA), or a Private Member’s Bill facilitated by the Government, no one can say. All power lies with the Prime Minister. If the Government moves its own amendments to the TGA, this will give the Democrats the chance to initiate a vote on the ban. Alternately, the Government can facilitate a Private Member’s bill mooting the necessary changes to the TGA.

A private member’s bill in the new year carries significant risks for supporters of women’s health and freedom. Having successfully delayed the vote, the large coterie of anti-choice government ministers who surround the Prime Minister may now be hoping to convince him that they need a private member’s bill, too. Say, one that bans Medicare funding for abortion, or mandates that women “cool off” for 2 days before being eligible to claim the abortion rebate. If such proposals sound extreme or unlikely, guess again. Both have been floated in the last few years by prominent members of the Coalition government, and have the support of key members of the Labor party.

Supporters of the ban are also pushing the PM to set up an inquiry into the drug’s safety. Hmmm, good idea. What about letting the TGA do it? Indeed, a research note published this week by the federal parliamentary library service, which provides neutral information, analysis and advice to MPs, points out that the TGA is precisely the right agency to undertake such an evaluation as it is explicitly charged with evaluating and managing the risks associated with pharmaceuticals. The note’s author points out that “The TGA is regarded by the government as being qualified to manage the risks associated with any therapeutic good that is used (or proposed for use) in Australia…[Why shouldn’t one] reasonably assume that it is also qualified to manage the risks associated with abortifacients such as RU486”?

So what can those with a penchant for good governance and a distaste for political interference into the private decisions citizens make about their lives and health do to restore the integrity of the TGA’s drug evaluation framework and to lift the ban on RU486?

The simple answer is to make more noise. The Government’s TGA bill remains on their legislative agenda for this parliamentary session. The Prime Minister must be urged to bring the bill on and to allow a vote on the Democrat’s amendment before the holiday break. And if a Private Member’s bill early next year is the best he can do, the unfairness of any tit-for-tat offerings to supporters of the ban must be made clear..

Having achieved their aim of delaying the bill, they’ve had their Christmas present already.

Publication history

Delay in drug debate spells trouble for free choice  The Age