February 6, 2006

Australian parliament set to debate abortion drug

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Scrapping Australia's effective ban on
an abortion drug could open the way for risky backyard
miscarriages, Health Minister Tony Abbott said as debate heats
up ahead of a free parliamentary vote on the issue this week.

At present, if a doctor wants to prescribe abortion drug
RU-486 in Australia, the application must first be approved by
the health minister -- currently the conservative, Catholic,
anti-abortion Abbott -- then assessed by the Therapeutic Goods

But four female politicians, from the Liberal/National
coalition government, main opposition Labor and the minority
Democrats, have put aside party politics and jointly introduced
a private members bill to remove the need for ministerial

"Drugs come with a warning label," Nationals Senator Fiona
Nash has said. "RU-486 could be given a label now, that label
should read 'Do not mix this medication with politics'."

Parliament, which sits on Tuesday for the first time in
2006, is due to hold a free vote on Thursday, with RU-486
advocates arguing that approval should rest with health
experts, while critics say an elected, accountable official
should be in charge.

Abbott wrote in the daily Australian newspaper on Monday of
his concerns that Australian women using RU-486 would lack
adequate medical supervision and that an Internet-based black
market could be created.

"The problem is backyard miscarriages if unscrupulous
doctors prescribe these drugs for desperate women," said
Abbott, adding that he had yet to receive any applications to
prescribe RU-486.

"I would want to be confident the rules surrounding the use
of the drug would not be readily flouted (as has reportedly
been the case with the morning-after pill, dispensed to girls
as young as 13 without any counseling, thanks to a bureaucratic

RU-486, also known as Mifeprex or mifepristone, grabbed the
spotlight last year after a government backbencher asked for a
review of the drug's effective ban because women in remote and
rural areas had difficulty accessing surgical abortions.


RU-486, developed in France in the 1980s, is used for
terminating a pregnancy of up to 49 days.

Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia says RU-486 is
already available in 35 countries, including Britain, France,
the United States, Sweden, Greece, Spain and New Zealand, and
has been used by more than 21 million women worldwide.

"It is not appropriate that the availability of any drug
should rest on the decision of a single individual," the
independent national body said in its submission to a
parliamentary inquiry on the issue.

Labor health spokeswoman Julia Gillard said Abbott's
comments were cheap and inflammatory, adding that she believed
the use of RU-486 should be left to the Therapeutic Goods

"We trust those experts to deal with cancer medication, we
trust those experts to deal with depression medication, we
trust them to deal with dangerous pain-killing medication, we
can trust them to deal with RU-486," Gillard told reporters.

Australians Against RU-486 not only want responsibility for
the drug to remain with the health minister, but for it never
to be approved because it is unsafe. A survey of 500 women by
the pressure group found that 60 percent were opposed to


The pill's maker, Danco Laboratories LLC, announced last
July that five women who had taken RU-486 had died from
bacterial infections since its introduction in America five
years ago. As a result, Congress has been called on to halt
sales of the pill.

Anne Sherston, who had an abortion 30 years ago, on Monday
made an emotional plea at the parliamentary inquiry hearing for
RU-486 to remain a ministerial responsibility.

"RU-486 is not like taking an aspirin for a headache. It is
taking human life," she said.

Debate on the issue is expected to be heated and with many
politicians yet to publicly take position on the issue, it is
unclear which way parliament will vote.