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Political will or safer pill?

By David van Gend - posted Friday, 9 December 2005

RU486 is a unique drug in that no other drug is designed to end a human life, and so its importation demands a unique level of public accountability.

That is the answer to the recurring question put to me this week by MPs and senators: Why should this drug require special approval by the federal health minister, when all other drugs are simply assessed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA)?

RU486 is out there on its own. You may think the life of a very young human being matters, or think that it does not, but there is no dispute scientifically that after using RU-486, where there once was a tiny beating heart and an unfolding human destiny, there is now death. That is unique, and of deep public concern.


Further, all other drugs are designed to treat a specific medical condition, but not RU486. Pregnancy is not a disease; RU486 is used on the entirely healthy offspring of entirely healthy women. That is unique, and medically unjustifiable.

That is why in 1996, when the current arrangements were set in place, both Labor and the Coalition supported Senator Brian Harradine's amendment that required the responsible minister to confirm any importation of RU486. In 1996, a former senator, Belinda Neal, spoke on behalf of Labor with a moral seriousness lacking in the current debate:

We acknowledge that this issue raises large concerns within the community. It raises issues beyond purely health issues. These issues need to be addressed by the executive of this government and addressed with absolute and direct accountability.

The parliament in 1996 aimed to prevent recurrence of the debacle in 1994 where a junior official in the health department approved the importation of RU486 without the minister's knowledge.

Fast forward a decade, and the Democrat amendment to remove the need for ministerial "signing off" is nothing more than an undoing of this accountability, so once more a departmental lackey can approve RU486 without the minister taking responsibility or the parliament knowing.

This parliament is not being asked to vote on the merits of RU486, but only on a Democrat amendment which undermines, for ideological reasons, proper ministerial accountability on a matter of public importance. It would be a triumph of underhandedness over transparency in our public life.


And remember, RU486 has never been banned and can be imported tomorrow if a genuine medical need exists. If RU486 was being imported for treatment of brain cancer or Cushing's syndrome, or even for those rare situations where abortion is medically essential to prevent grave physical harm to the mother, that should be approved.

But we are not being asked to import this drug on medical grounds, to treat a disease or for authentic medical abortions, but on ideological grounds - a matter of "increasing choice", as the AMA's Dr Mukesh Haikerwal puts it, in the context of social abortion for reasons of financial or emotional distress.

The medical profession and the government should draw the line at importing a medication when there is no authentic medical condition to be treated. And both the profession and the government should instead be diverting their energies to relieving the underlying social pressures that drive women to abortion, rather than treating social problems with a chemical.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on December 1, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr David van Gend is a Toowoomba GP and Queensland secretary for the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life.

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