Until early 2006, the Federal Health Minister had the right to veto any application to allow medication abortion drug RU486 to be used in Australia. On 16 February 2006, the RU486 Private Members Bill passed through the Federal Parliament’s House of Representatives, removing this veto and giving the appropriate medical and scientific experts at the Therapeutic Goods Administration the power to assess RU486 and determine Australian women’s access to the drug.
By removing political interference from medical decision-making, the bill’s passing was a victory for common sense and good governance.
In the early 1990s RU486 (also called 'mifepristone', sometimes referred to as the 'abortion pill') was available in Australia through the World Health Organisation's international trials of the drug. The results of the trials demonstrated that RU486 was a safe and effective method of pregnancy termination for women. Mifepristone has also been legal and easily accessible in many countries around the world since the 1980s. As expectations grew that the drug would be approved for use in Australia following the international trials, lobbying was undertaken by anti-choice activists to ensure that RU486 did not become widely available to Australian women.
The mid-1990s saw the Howard Government in power in Australia, with conservative Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine holding the balance of power in the Senate.
As a result of a political deal, Harradine pledged his support for Government bills, including the privatisation of Telstra, in return for the introduction of restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. One of these restrictions was a ministerial veto on the importation of RU486 and other medication abortion drugs; another was the introduction of the AUSAid Family Planning Guidelines.
In June 1996, the Therapeutic Goods Act was amended to introduce special procedures for drugs such as RU486, which are intended for use in medication abortion. Under this amendment the Health Minister was required to approve the importation, evaluation, registration and listing of these drugs, and any such ministerial approval had to be tabled in both houses of Federal Parliament within five sitting days. No requirement for ministerial approval applied for drugs not intended for use in medication abortion.
This type of restriction applies to very few therapeutic drugs, and discouraged pharmaceutical companies and organisations from applying to distribute mifepristone in Australia. The normal process for approval requires an application from a drug company to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the federal body which oversees the use of medications in Australia. More information on the TGA and its duties can be found here.
Once an application is approved by the TGA, the company applying has the right to distribute the drug in Australia, meaning doctors have the right to prescribe it and patients to use it. The expense involved for the sponsoring company can be significant. With ministerial approval necessary as well as a successful TGA application, companies were unwilling to undertake this expense for mifepristone, when the Minister may have moved to overturn the approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. There were no guidelines for Ministerial approval and the Federal Minister for Health at the time, Hon Tony Abbott MP, was anti-choice.
The debate began in October 2005 when the Australian Democrats Senate Leader Lyn Allison flagged that she would seek to amend the TGA to remove the Harradine restriction. At the same time, Cairns obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Caroline De Costa announced that she was applying to the Therapeutic Good Administration to become an authorised prescriber of RU486.
The push to remove the restriction was then strongly taken up by Liberal MP Dr Sharman Stone, both in the media and with her parliamentary colleagues. Dr Stone's position was soon supported by a number of key parliamentarians, such as then-Ministers Helen Coonan, Kay Patterson, Dr Brendan Nelson, and Labor's Julia Gillard (then Shadow Health Minister), Senators Jan McLucas and Claire Moore, and Greens Senator Kerry Nettle. Democrats Senator Lyn Allison continued to be at the forefront of debate around RU486.
Women's and health organisations such as Children by Choice, Reproductive Choice Australia, the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists spoke out in favour of the lifting the ban. In conjunction with the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, Reproductive Choice Australia produced a briefing document RU486/Mifepristone: A factual guide to the issues in the Australian debate. This report is available online.
Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott attempted to manipulate the debate by requesting limited advice on the use of RU486 from the Chief Health Officer. Abbott twisted the information provided to him, suggesting that rural and regional health services and GPs were not equipped to provide Ru486 to women. This claim sparked outrage from the medical community, and organisations such as the Rural Doctors Association strongly defended their members' capacity to appropriately provide medical care for women.
By mid November it looked like a vote was going to be held on the ban by the end of the year. Reproductive Choice Australia strongly argued that the vote should not be based on conscience, but any amendment should be sponsored by the Government as a policy position and voted on party lines, like all other health legislation. In early December, the Prime Minister agreed to allow parliament to debate the issue in February 2006, in the form of a private member's bill and a conscience vote.
A conscience vote gives each MP the right to decide their position, rather than voting along party lines. Pro-choice supporters were active in contacting their representatives and ensuring support for the lifting of the restrictions was heard.
The final vote on the Bill was carried on voices only and the support by MPs was overwhelming. Below is the House of Representatives vote result on the second reading of the Bill.
Adams, Albanese, Bailey, Baird, Beazley, Bevis, Billson, Bird, J. Bishop, Bowen, Brough, A. Burke, Cobb, Corcoran, Costello, Crean, Danby, Edwards, Elliot, Ellis, Ellis, Emerson, Entsch, L. Ferguson, M. Ferguson, Fitzgibbon, Gambaro, Garrett, Gash, Georganas, George, Georgiou, Gibbons, Gillard, Grierson, Griffin, Haase, Hall, Hatton, Henry, Hoare, Hockey, Hull, Hunt, Irwin, Jenkins, Jensen, Johnson, Jull, Keenan, Kerr, King, Laming, Lawrence, Ley, Lindsay, Livermore, Macfarlane, Macklin, May, McArthur, McClelland, McMullan, Melham, Moylan, Nairn, Nelson, O’Connor, Owens, Pearce, Plibersek, Price, Prosser, Quick, Ripoll, Roxon, Rudd, Scott, Sercombe, T. Smith, S. Smith, Snowdon, Southcott, Stone, Swan, Tanner, C. Thompson, K. Thomson, Ticehurst, Turnbull, Vamvakinou, Washer, Wilkie, Windsor, Wood.
Abbott, Anderson, Andrews, Baker, Baldwin, Barresi, Bartlett, B. Bishop, Broadbent, T. Burke, Byrne, Cadman, Causley, Ciobo, Downer, Draper, Dutton, Farmer, Fawcett, Ferguson, Forrest, Hardgrave, Hartsuyker, Hayes, Howard, Katter, D. Kelly, J. Kelly, Lloyd, Markus, McGauran, Murphy, Neville, O’Connor, Panopoulos, Pyne, Randall, Richardson, Robb, Ruddock, Schultz, Secker, Slipper, Somlyay, Tollner, Truss, Tuckey, Vale, Vasta, Wakelin.
Visit the Federal Parliament website for more information on the bill as well as transcripts of speeches.
Women MPs make the difference
In both Houses of Parliament, women senators and MPs overwhelmingly supported the Bill. This will please many of our supporters who have campaigned over the years for more women in Parliament!
Children by Choice would like to thank all our members and supporters for your efforts to make our RU486 campaign a success. Many thanks to everyone who contacted their Senators and Member of Parliament. Your voice made a difference!
Children by Choice would like to pay tribute to the courage, strength and commitment of the four senators who sponsored the RU486 Private Members Bill in the Senate:
Senator Claire Moore (ALP QLD)
Senator Fiona Nash (NAT NSW)
Senator Lyn Allison (Dems VIC)
Senator Judith Troeth (LIB VIC).
These senators worked very hard promoting the importance to Australian women of the Bill and enlisting their Senate and House of Representatives colleagues’ support. See this Inside Story article for a good analysis of the senators’ work on this issue.
Our special thanks go to Senator Claire Moore and her staff for their support of Children by Choice during the debate.
When will RU486 become available to Australian women and their doctors?
Until August 2012, no pharmaceutical company had successfully applied to import and distribute RU486 in Australia. This meant the drug was administered under the Authorised Prescribers Act, which governs the prescriptions of medication not distributed by a company within Australia. For women to have access to RU486, their doctor must have applied to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for approval to import and supply the drug to their patients only.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced on 30 August that two drugs have been approved for distribution in Australia for use in early medical abortion. One of these drugs is mifepristone, also known as RU486, which has been available on a limited basis in Australia since 2006 when the ministerial veto on its importation was overturned in federal parliament.
The TGA announcement means specialist obstetricians and gynaecologists, as well as GPs who undertake training from the license holder Marie Stopes International Australia, will be able to prescribe mifepristone to women for use in termination of pregnancy up to seven weeks gestation. It is hoped that this will result in expanded access to the drug, particularly in remote, rural and regional areas. At this stage it is unclear what the decision will mean for women in Queensland and how it will interact with Queensland abortion law. The implications for doctors currently approved to prescribe the drug to women with pregnancies up to nine weeks gestation is also unknown.