Did you know that while one in three Australian women will have an abortion in her lifetime, abortion is still listed in the criminal code in some parts of Australia? The current debate in Australia about the use of RU486 (the common term for the drug Mifepristone that induces chemical abortion and can be used to replace surgical abortion) highlights the ethical, moral, and political and practical dilemmas faced by any policy makers attempting to make policy concerning abortion.
Despite the protests of the federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, the current ban on RU486 in Australia is based on moral rather than health reasons. Use of the drug in Australia is supported by the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Public Health Association of Australia. The World Health Organisation believe that RU486 is so safe and effective that it has deemed it to be ‘essential’ for doctors working in developed nations.
The ban on the widespread use of RU486 in Australia is the result of a political deal nutted out between the federal Coalition-led government and the recently retired Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine in 1996. Harradine supported the half sale of Telstra in return for government support of changes to the Therapeutic Drugs Act which served to ban the drug (the drug can be approved only for patients to whom the federal Health Minister gives direct approval, and any approval has to be tabled in parliament).
The Labor party supported Harradine’s amendment in 1996 and has allowed a conscience vote on any legislation regarding the use of RU486. There is no guarantee that even with Coalition MPs threatening to cross the floor on the issue any vote to allow the widespread use of the drug in Australia would be successful. This is because the support of Labor politicians cannot be guaranteed on any legislation considering abortion. The Queensland Labor state government has, for example, refused to enact legislation to remove abortion from the criminal code in Queensland.
Such debates around contentious health policy issues are necessary, but those charged with legislating for the health of the nation need to be more explicit about the basis on which they make their decisions – i.e. for personal religious or moral reasons, or based on evidence about the health implications. Then they must legislate sensibly, not emotionally, by carefully weighing up the health risks of potential drugs for the community. This has never happened in political decision making around the use of RU486 in Australia.
Dr Jennifer Smith
NHMRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Australian Health Policy Institute
at The University of Sydney