It is inconsistent that the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is legally responsible for protecting unborn babies from harm, should be given responsibility for approving the controversial abortion drug RU-486, which leads to the death of the foetus, writes Peter Westmore.
Over 4,000 submissions had been received by the Senate inquiry into the abortion drug RU-486, when submissions closed on Monday, January 16.
Of them, only about 100 were in favour of the drug, although the media have concentrated on them – virtually ignoring those opposed to its use.
The committee is due to report back on February 8, with Parliament expected to debate the bill soon after. The Coalition and the Labor parties have given their members a conscience vote on the issue.
The drug RU-486 is used specifically to procure abortion, a procedure which remains illegal in most states of Australia. This latter aspect is an essential difference between it and other therapeutic drugs which are made available to achieve a lawful purpose (relief of pain, treatment of illness, etc.).
Pro-RU-486 Democrat Senator Lyn Allison, who introduced a private member’s bill in the Senate seeking to permit the introduction of the drug, reacted angrily to the submissions, and has claimed that up to 3,000 of them should be discounted because they “do not meet the inquiry’s terms of reference”.
However, Senator Guy Barnett, a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiring into the RU-486 bill, has said that he will consider carefully the views of all those who had made submissions:
“It is an encouraging sign of democracy in action, as well as an indication of significant grassroots concern about the abortion pill RU-486, that thousands of Australians have taken the time over the summer holidays to respond to our committee’s call for public submissions. I am surprised that some Senators seem irked by this exercise of democracy.”
The umbrella organisation of those opposed to the drug, Australians Against RU-486 (AA RU486), also welcomed the flood of submissions from concerned Australians.
It expects this vigorous expression of opposition to RU-486 and to the RU-486 bill to get even stronger as more Australians become aware of the real dangers of the drug to the health of Australian women.
The need for a wider public debate on RU-486 was highlighted by a recent study, commissioned by AA RU486.
Conducted in December 2005 by Quantum and released in January, it shows 60 per cent of Australian women are opposed to the introduction of the abortion pill when given information about it.
In the study, women were provided with details, including the complications associated with RU-486, the timeframe compared with surgical abortion, and the increased risk of death as compared with surgical abortion.
Given this information, only 33 per cent of Australian women supported the drug’s possible introduction.
The polling also indicated relatively low awareness of RU-486, with only about a quarter of women aware of the drug. Of those women aware of RU-486, there is fairly limited understanding about the drug. Without information about its side-effects, just over half (51 per cent) support its introduction.
This survey illustrates clearly why the sponsors of the RU-486 Bill are so desperate to shut down any debate. Pro-RU-486 Senators know that when Australian women are faced with the well-documented risks and complications associated with the drug, they do not support its introduction.
Even when fully informed of the risks, only a third of Australian women would support the Australian Government voting for the drug’s introduction.
Australians Against RU-486 officially launched their campaign in Sydney last month.
Medical spokeswoman Dr Catherine Lennon says, “What this survey shows us is that there is a lack of knowledge about the RU-486 abortion pill and its risks among Australian women.”
With cleverly-chosen wording, sponsors of the RU-486 Bill are attempting to say that the safety of the drug is not the issue.
The sponsors of the Bill – now before the Senate – are playing a tricky political game that, if successful, will result in a backward step for choice and women’s health in Australia, said AA RU486 executive director, Simone Holzapfel.
Designed to kill
Among the other issues to be considered is whether it is appropriate that the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which is responsible for protecting unborn babies from harm, should be responsible for a drug designed to kill them.
The TGA’s publication, Prescribing Medicines in Pregnancy, describes the categories into which prescription medicines are allocated. One of them is Category X, which is defined as “drugs which have such a high risk of causing permanent damage to the foetus that they should not be used in pregnancy or where there is a possibility of pregnancy”.
It would be inconsistent with the TGA’s current responsibility for protecting the life and health of the foetus for the agency to be given responsibility for approving drugs which lead to the death of the foetus, solely on the basis of the health risks posed to the mother.
The decision on whether to approve RU-486 is one which involves legal and ethical issues, as well as health issues, for both the mother and the unborn child. The decision should therefore remain with the Minister, not the bureaucrats.
- Peter Westmore