Full access to RU486 — abortion is a woman's choice

Sunday, August 16, 2009 - 10:00

Access to safe medical and surgical abortion is a right that women have fought for and are still to fully achieve. They've kept fighting because the right to decide if and when to bear children is a cornerstone for women's equality in society.

This struggle is being played out in Queensland today. A growing pro-choice movement supports repeal of the anti-abortion sections in the state's criminal laws. Meanwhile, the state government hopes the issue will just go away.

The anti-abortion laws — sections 224, 225, and 226 of the Queensland Criminal Code — criminalise health services needed only by women.

Public opinion is clearly behind law reform. Seventy-nine percent of Queenslanders want abortion decriminalised, said an independent poll in May.

The question asked by many is: why isn't this law reform a straightforward process in the 21st century?

Abortion has been removed from the Crimes Acts of the ACT and Victoria. Interestingly, the English criminal code, from which these laws originate, was changed in 1967. A new law regulated the free provision of abortions to women through the British National Health Service.

If Britain got rid of these archaic laws more than 40 years ago, why do doctors and women still face criminal sanctions, including jail terms, for abortions in Queensland today?

The cracks are starting to appear in the "don't rock the boat" argument. On July 30, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh made the weak argument that pushing for law reform could result in a parliamentary "conscience" vote that might restrict abortion services even more.

But Bligh's claim that it's better to leave things as they are no longer washes.
On August 10, healthcare provider Marie Stopes International won approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to provide RU486 — a drug that induces miscarriage early in pregnancy — in its clinics in Victoria, NSW, the ACT, Western Australia and Queensland.

This approval comes in the lead up to a committal hearing in September for a Cairns couple accused of using an abortion drug to terminate a pregnancy.

After the young couple were charged, two Cairns doctors sought legal advice and have since stopped prescribing RU486. They said they fear it may open themselves or their clients to prosecution.

Kate Marsh, from Queensland abortion law reform group Children by Choice, welcomed the decision by Marie Stopes to offer RU486 in Australia.

"We are hopeful it will also provide improved access and more options for women who choose to terminate a pregnancy, which is something we and other groups have been campaigning for for a long time", she said on August 10.

"However, it draws attention to the fact that the law in Queensland <193> does not provide a clear legal framework for doctors or women.

"Queensland women need clarity. They need to be assured that making the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy will not result in a criminal prosecution. Decriminalisation is needed, and needed urgently."

RU486 is used legally in New Zealand. It has been available in France and Switzerland since 1988, in Britain since 1991, in most other European countries since the early-mid '90s and in the United States since 2000. It is also used legally in countries as diverse as India, China, Israel, Russia, Tunisia and Turkey.

Yet in Australia, groups opposed to women's right to choose to have an abortion led a scare campaign against RU486.

In 1996, the Howard coalition government removed RU486 from the standard drug approval process. The use or import of the drug without the personal permission of the federal health minister was banned.

Ten years later, after a concerted campaign, a private members' bill in the federal parliament successfully overturned the ban in February 2006. Doctors in Australia could now apply to the TGA for approval to prescribe RU486.

However, the Australian government still banned overseas aid for abortion services. This mirrored US policy under former president George W. Bush. In January, US President Barack Obama said the US ban would be lifted.

Australia was left as the only major donor nation to enforce such a ban. Australian reproductive rights activists stepped up their demands for change. On March 10, the government finally announced an end to the policy, even though Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he still supported the ban.

Despite these advances, the political debate surrounding RU486 had, until recently, discouraged Australian drug making and distributing companies from making it available.

A woman's ability to choose to have an abortion varies greatly depending on where she lives. RU486 needs to be made available for all Australian women equally, whether they live in cities or rural regions.

Campaigners for women's rights aren't prepared to let the Queensland government put the lid on this hot debate. They are looking to work with the majority of the population to win the fundamental right of Australian women to access safe, legal abortion.

From GLW issue 807