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Mifepristone: not a panacea

By Helen Ransom - posted Wednesday, 2 November 2005

It’s been more than ten years since the abortion drug RU486 (mifepristone) was banned for use as an abortifacient in Australia.

A new bid to bring the drug into the country has begun. In the Medical Journal of Australia of October 3, 2005, obstetrician Caroline De Costa called for a reversal of the ban.

This was quickly picked up by politicians from all major parties, among them Labor Health spokeswoman Julia Gillard and Democrats leader Senator Lynne Allison, who described RU486 as “a safe alternative to surgical abortion”.


Coalition MP and former general practitioner, Mal Washer, described Australia as “out on a limb”, lagging behind other industrialised countries such as the US, Britain and New Zealand. Yet Coalition MP and former obstetrician, Senator Alan Eggleston, insists that the drug poses unacceptable health risks to women.

Dr De Costa plans to lodge a formal application with the Therapeutic Goods Administration in December. The final decision rests with Health Minister Tony Abbott.

Some important points have so far been glossed over in the latest round of reports and commentary on RU486. The first relates to the growing belief the current abortion rate is unconscionable.

There is one surgical abortion for every 2.8 live births in Australia. A recent survey commissioned by the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute reported that 64 - 73 percent of Australians think this is unacceptably high. RU486 might reduce the numbers of surgical abortions, but it’s not going to reduce the abortion rate.

A case in point is the "morning after" pill, which the federal government approved as an over-the-counter drug in early 2004. Marketed as an “emergency contraceptive” in many cases it is actually an abortifacient, because it prevents a baby implanting in its mother’s uterus.

A study of 2,117 women aged 15 to 24, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January showed virtually no difference in the abortion rate between women who had easy access to morning-after pills and those who got the pill from their healthcare provider. And in Britain, easy access to the morning-after pill has seen rises in sexually-transmitted diseases and no drop in the number of abortions.


A second point is that RU486 does nothing to promote women’s welfare: not only does it kill unborn babies, it puts the lives and health of mothers at significant risk.

RU486 is a man-made steroid which acts against the progesterone pregnant women naturally produces to sustain the unborn child, cutting off its nourishment and killing it in utero. A second chemical, misoprostol, is also used in the process. It causes cramping and contractions, flushing the now dead baby from its mother’s womb.

RU486 has other uses, such as inducing women in labour who are very overdue, and treating breast cancer and some diseases of the womb. But the experience of this drug as an abortifacient in countries such as the United States should sound warning bells to women across Australia.

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About the Author

Helen Ransom is a political adviser and is currently studying a Grad Dip in Theology at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.

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