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Thursday, 16 February 2006
Page: 14

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources) (9:47 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005. There are those who have attempted to take the high moral ground in this debate by saying that support of this bill equates to support of abortion. That stance is not only wrong and misleading; it also overlooks the fact that there is no absolute right or wrong in this debate. Nor is there a high moral ground in either argument. Some might have reduced this debate to who is for and who is against abortion. It cannot be carved out into such a convenient, neat debate. Simplifying the debate into one about abortion overlooks the social pillar which makes this country a place in which I am proud to be the father of two adult daughters. It overlooks the rights of Australian women, and it betrays the freedom of informed individual choice. It also neglects the opportunity for experts to seek a less traumatic process for those women who have made one of the toughest decisions a human being can ever make.

This is not a vote in support of or opposition to abortion. It is a vote about choice. There are those who argue that RU486 and its introduction will increase the number of abortions in Australia. Based on the experience of those countries which have already legalised RU486 I can see no evidence that the introduction of RU486 would lead to higher abortion rates in Australia. I would hope that provision of choice through the introduction of RU486, should it be seen to be safe, would lead to a greater consultation and consideration of all options by patients and their doctors before the final decision is made, and that this would in turn lead to fewer abortions. No-one is arguing for abortion. No-one is pro-abortion. I certainly am not pro-abortion; quite the contrary. But the practice is an abhorrent reality in Australia now. The question is whether we as a democratic country give individuals the choice of a medically approved and medically supervised pharmaceutical abortion option or do we, on the other hand, continue to prescribe the intrusive surgical procedure to which women currently subject themselves, having made the decision to have an abortion.

This vote is about providing a medically approved option, not a political response to one of the greatest ethical debates of our time. While it is certainly a major public ethical debate, it is before that an agonising personal decision. I am not convinced that public office bearers such as us should have a guaranteed place in the politics of the personal.

There are those who want to define this debate in political terms. They say it is a hard decision, so politicians should make it. This is not a political debate, and that has been signified by the fact that we are not dividing along party lines and that each and every one of us must consider the issue through a personal, not political, prism. Frankly, if it becomes a political decision, there is no guarantee that the safety or otherwise of RU486 will ever be considered by the medical experts. It runs the risk of becoming a process tainted by prejudices on both sides, one that is simply too difficult for a pharmaceuticals company to navigate. The result would be that pharmaceuticals would not be put forward for assessment because of the lack of clarity and certainty in a politicised process.

Dr David van Gend said on the ABC two days ago:

You cannot meaningfully assess a drug designed to take life, using the same criteria as you’d use for a headache tablet or an ulcer tablet ...

I agree. Why, then, are we thinking about leaving that complex medical decision to a politician or a parliament? The use of RU486 is a medical decision for which we have an expert medical body. The TGA members are qualified to make such an exact medical decision, based on expertise, experience and knowledge. The use of RU486 is a decision which should be made in a medical environment between individuals and their doctors, with full consideration of the individual’s personal circumstances and needs.

Like it or not, abortion is legal in this country, and if a woman has made that decision it is not for me to judge what method is best for her to resolve that situation. That is a matter for her and her doctor. By what means we politicians have garnered the expertise to make such a precise technical and medical decision is unclear. In the main, we do not have the experience and we do not have the medical insight. I thank those in this place who do have that expertise—the members of parliament who are doctors, like the member for Moore—who have explained the greater health and social need for a medically approved pharmaceutical option.

The best path forward is to put in place a process using an expert, medically qualified body to properly approve the drug’s use. Therefore, I will be voting for a system in which those people who are best qualified to judge the risks of this treatment are able to do so. I also support the use of greater counselling and guidance as the only way to reduce the number of abortions in Australia. I agree, as do many members of this House, that that number is alarming and too high. I, like many other members who have spoken on this bill, including the member for Cowan, strongly believe that school sex education should be reviewed to play a greater role in the overall education of Australian children, thus avoiding unexpected pregnancies in the first place.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the many constituents who have contacted me on this issue and expressed their views. This has not been an easy decision for me, and I know that I cannot please all of my constituents with my final resolution of my position. But I have to return to my belief that politicians do not have a place in such an intensely personal and individual medical decision. I therefore support the bill as presented to the House.