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Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Page: 58


Mrs IRWIN (5:43 PM) —The debate on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005 goes beyond considering a small amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Act. The principles we are debating go to the heart of democratic government and the rights of citizens. The major parties in this parliament have allowed their members a conscience vote on this issue. The decision to remove the discretion of the Minister for Health and Ageing to allow the import and registration of the abortion drug RU486 will be decided by each of the 150 members of this House, as it has been with the 76 members of the Senate.

We have an opportunity to exercise our individual conscience. We will not allow the majority view of our party rooms to dictate how we vote on this issue. We all acknowledge that our views on this issue will be determined by what we understand to be our own moral and ethical beliefs. But the 20 million or so other Australians depending on the outcome of this debate will not have the fundamental right to follow their own conscience. If we regard this issue as one which demands that members of this parliament should be free to vote according to their conscience, why then would we even consider keeping on our statute books a law which denies the right of Australian citizens to exercise their own conscience?

On the one hand, we have opponents of this bill who assert that in a democracy we must obey the moral dictates of those who are acknowledged to be moral and ethical leaders. The opponents fail to accept that ours is a pluralist society which accepts a range of standards. We are governed in accordance with accepted norms rather than so-called moral truths. Those who believe that abortion is wrong are free to hold their beliefs and, within reason, to spread those beliefs to others. But they do not have the right to impose restrictions on behaviour which is acceptable to a substantial proportion if not a majority of the population. To impose their moral beliefs on others is nothing less than tyranny. Some speakers in this debate have said and will say that it is not about abortion—that abortion under acceptable conditions is not illegal in Australia.

But this debate is very much about restricting access to abortion. In that way, it is part of an agenda being followed in many parts of the world. Unable to prohibit abortion in Australia and in other countries, the anti-abortion lobby has attempted, and in some countries succeeded, in restricting access to abortion. That is the only reason behind the original move by Senator Harradine in 1996, and that is the only reason behind the members who are opposing the bill now. Their real objection to allowing the use of RU486 is that it can make abortion more accessible and acceptable. That was the clear message in the original debate back in 1996. In the words of former Senator Lees:

While respecting Senator Harradine’s views, opinions and beliefs on this issue, I do have to make it very clear to senators that what we are voting for, if we support those amendments, is a restriction on women for the right to choose. They are restricting a woman’s choice, to require her to terminate a pregnancy only by surgical means. They will effectively take away what is now termed the morning after pill or RU486 and future generations of this pill or a similar substance.

That is precisely what happened and has been the case for the last 10 years, and the opponents of this bill will want to keep it that way. If they cannot stop abortion altogether, they want to make it so hard to access that it might as well be banned. By preventing access to an alternative to surgical abortion, opponents know that many women will not be able to travel to the hospitals and clinics where these services are available. For women in smaller regional centres as well as outer urban and not so remote locations, medical abortion is a safe alternative. While all states have set requirements for legal abortion, equality of access can be limited by allowing only surgical abortion. RU486 is a safe and effective means of abortion. It can be less expensive and reduce the demand on scarce surgery resources.

But opponents of this bill would not allow these considerations. For them, the fact that RU486 can be used in the earlier stages of a pregnancy, with fewer risks than those associated with surgical abortion, is not something they want to see. In their time-honoured tradition, they want to pile on the guilt. At the very least, they want to keep abortion as an invasive procedure with all the risks of surgery. They do not really have the interests of women at heart. They only have their own agenda, and they will stop at nothing to impose their own will on all Australian women.

It was interesting to note the greater number of women senators voting in favour of this bill, and it will be very interesting to note the number of women in this House who vote in support of the bill. While this bill would remove the Minister for Health and Ageing from the approval process, registration for use of RU486 in Australia would require the approval of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the authority charged with the responsibility of vetting all drugs approved for use in Australia. It may also require local clinical trials before being widely available. This is the same Therapeutic Goods Administration that approved Viagra, Vioxx and Celebrex for use in Australia, all without referral to the minister of the day. But no-one in this debate is suggesting that the TGA is not a competent and objective authority to rigorously assess the risks and benefits of RU486 before any approval.

RU486 is approved for use in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and in most western European countries as well as in Russia, China, Israel and New Zealand. RU486 has been used in many of those countries for more than 10 years without raising serious concerns for its safety. The World Health Organisation has certified RU486 as safe and acceptable to women. The use of RU486 is supported by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Australian Medical Association. There are risks with any medical treatment, but we must also consider that around 70,000 women die each year as a result of unsafe abortions. Many thousands more are left with disease and injury as a result of unsafe abortions.

One estimate suggests that worldwide there are about 50 million abortions each year. In Australia estimates range up to 100,000 abortions each year. The question to be asked is: is that too many? Few people would suggest that abortion should be the preferred method for women to control their fertility. But we have countries that have very low birth rates, such as Japan, where abortion is legal and where, until recently, the contraceptive pill was banned. And Poland, a Roman Catholic country where abortion is banned and contraceptives are severely restricted, has one of the world’s lowest birth rates.

In Australia those who express alarm at the number of abortions are often the same people who advocate restrictions on access to sex education and contraception. They are so far out of touch with the beliefs and aspirations of Australian women. And then we get the absurd claims by the member for Hughes, who wants Australian women to join her crusade.

I will now turn to the proposed amendments to this bill. The effect of both is to single out RU486 as the only drug or class of drugs whose registration is subject to disallowance by this parliament. Again we see an agenda of restricting access to procedures which are otherwise not illegal—that is, they definitely have the same agenda as Senator Harradine did 10 years ago. The only difference is that it also places a greater risk on the drug manufacturer. Not only does the manufacturer need to seek approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration but, having succeeded in that objective assessment, they also face the political risk of the parliament rejecting the application. It is the same old tactic: place as many obstacles as you can in the way of allowing women access to safer and cheaper abortion.

In the present political climate you have to ask whom they think they are fooling with an argument that the parliament should have the final say in government decision making. As I said at the beginning, the true conscience vote on this issue is the decision made in good conscience by a woman, on the advice of her doctor and, if she wishes, her partner and family. To say that only the parliament is qualified to make such a decision is a definite slur on Australian women.

Abortion is accepted by a significant proportion of the Australian people. Our laws must be based on the accepted norms of Australian society, not on the views of self-appointed moralists. Our conscience votes on this bill must be to allow all Australian women the right to exercise their own consciences. I will vote for this bill, and I definitely will not vote for the amendments.