History in Australia

History of RUU486

Restriction on the use of Mifepristone in Australia goes back to a long time ago and continues to this day. Back in the early 1990s, RU486 was introduced to Australia through a World Health Organization trial for the drug. The trial was an international one, and the results showed that the drug was an effective and safe way for women to terminate the pregnancy. This led to expectations that it would be approved in Australia, too, since it was already made legal in various countries. However, this did not happen as anti-choice activists lobbied against it. The political situation in Australia around that time also made it impossible as the Balance of power was held by conservative Senator Brian Harradine.

A political deal between him and the government meant that be supported some government bills in exchange for restriction on abortion and reproductive rights. An example of such restriction is the AusAID Family Planning Guidelines that were introduced as well as the ministerial veto of Mifepristone and other abortion drugs importation.

Later in 1996, the Parliament amended the Therapeutic Goods Act to make special provision for drugs like Mifepristone, which are meant for medication abortion. This amendment gave the Health Minister the power to give approval on the importation, registration, listing, and evaluation of these drugs. The ministerial approval must be tabled in both the Senate and the House of Representatives within five sitting days. There was no such requirement for drugs that are not meant for medication abortion.

The restriction discouraged many pharmaceutical organisations and companies in Australia from even applying to distribute the drug, especially since the then Federal Minister of Health, Tony Abbot, was against abortion.

In October 2005, The Senate Leader for Australian Democrats, Senator Lyn Allison, started the debate on the issue when she sought an amendment of the TGA which would get rid of the restriction. Cairns Gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Caroline De Costa also announced during the same period that she would be applying to the TGA to become authorised as a mifepristone media.

Liberal MP, Dr Sharon Stone also took up the move and soon gained the support of her colleagues such as Helen Coonan, Dr Brenda Nelson, and Kay Patterson, who were Ministers at that time, as well as Julia Gillard of the Labor Party, who was the Shadow Health Minister, Labor’s Senators Claire Moore and Jan McLucas, and Senator Kerry Nettle of Greens. Senator Lyn Allison remained at the forefront.

Health and women’s organisations like Children by Choice, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and Reproductive Choice Australia also supported the removal of the restriction publicly.

The debate continued till early December when the Prime minister finally agreed that there would be a debate on a vote on the matter in February 2006. The vote was chosen to be a conscience vote which means that MPs can vote based on their position rather than party lines. The vote ended overwhelmingly in support of removing the restriction.