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Thursday, 9 February 2006
Page: 41

Senator LUNDY (11:30 AM) —Opponents of choice and those who think women are not responsible enough to make decisions about themselves and their health and welfare have subverted this debate. The question before the parliament is simply whether a health minister—and not simply the current health minister—should make the decision on the availability of a drug or whether the responsibility of evaluating drugs should belong to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA. At present, RU486 is the only drug that is evaluated by the health minister and not the TGA.

Imagine the outcry from the same very vocal anti-choice lobby were there to be a new pro-choice health minister exercising this power of decision, based not on specialist medical knowledge but on personal, ethical and religious beliefs. These very same people would be calling for exactly this legislation to remove the decision-making power from a minister who is not required to have medical or pharmaceutical qualifications. Such is the hypocrisy of the situation.

In Australia, under the 1996 Harradine amendments, the power to restrict RU486 and similar drugs rests with the minister. The minister is required to inform parliament of a decision to approve an application for a drug to be evaluated by the TGA, but parliament may not disallow such a decision. The minister is not required to inform parliament of decisions not to approve applications. Current arrangements do not provide for adequate scrutiny by parliament of arbitrary decisions made by a minister for health.

Therefore, I commend the joint sponsors of this bill: Senators Allison, Troeth, Nash and Moore. Senators should note that the bill is thus sponsored by representatives of the Democrats and the Liberal, National and Labor parties. I thank those senators for the opportunity to spotlight this incredibly undemocratic power wielded at the moment by one extraordinarily insensitive man.

Minister Abbott has been widely reported as making what the Australian Medical Association has described as ‘hot-headed, inflammatory and offensive’ statements in an apparent attempt to defend his role in denying any qualified assessment of RU486. Apparently, without Minister Abbott’s intervention—he claims—unscrupulous doctors prescribing the pill indiscriminately would give rise to backyard miscarriages and an internet black market. What a ridiculous and irresponsible proposition. As the shadow minister for health, Ms Gillard, has pointed out, if the minister thinks doctors would be misprescribing and endangering lives in this way, he should be taking action on that.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration is specifically charged with identifying, assessing and evaluating the risks posed by therapeutic goods. It must also monitor and review any risks over time. Thus it is the TGA that is the appropriate authority to assess and recommend on RU486 and not a biased minister. The Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005 does not seek to approve or ban RU486. It seeks to have its assessment made by the most qualified body.

Let us be clear: this bill is not about legalising abortion—it is legal. State legislatures have responsibility for those laws, and this parliament and this government have no role in abortion legislation. Yet we are subjected to this same debate on abortion policy with increasing frequency and on every related topic. Why do some men in positions of power and influence get this periodic urge to prescribe for women what they do with their bodies? Last year it was Senator Boswell who led the charge, with his call for a study on abortion statistics.

One year ago, on 31 January, a petition of 12 male religious leaders was given a lot of prominence. Claiming to represent, at least nominally, 70 per cent of the population of Australia—that is, the nominal adherents to the major religions—these men called for, inter alia: mandatory reporting of abortions and publicly available records and statistics; independent medical practitioners to provide, both orally and in writing, descriptions of the abortion method and potential health risks, physical and psychological, of abortion procedures; and a statutory delay of seven days after the provision of this advice—including written advice—so that the woman might properly consider her decision.

Senator Humphries—then a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly—insisted that pictures of foetuses must be shown to women considering abortions. Then, if the woman still went ahead, they wanted to impose on her and her doctor post-abortion follow-up, including counselling and referral. In effect, this largely male lobby group sought to delay as long as possible the woman’s decision to have an abortion through the provision of mandatory tasks to be performed, first, by medical practitioners, and, then, through a mandatory cooling-off period that would be a further delay for the woman. So much for their concern about late-term abortions.

If the genuine concern of the largely right-wing male lobby group was late-term abortions, logically, it would support the early medical provision of RU486 and the availability of the morning-after pill. One statistic this lobby group does not readily acknowledge is that, according to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes in 2003, 81.2 per cent of Australians, regardless of gender or religion, agree that women should have the right to choose an abortion.

In debating abortion issues, some senators and members appear to promote anti-women and anti-choice views. They will not trust women, or even their medical advisers, to make informed decisions in individual cases. From their positions of lofty ignorance, they seek to make universal rulings to cover individual plights. I believe it is between a woman and her doctor to determine the best procedure relating to termination.

Don’t they realise that they are tackling the problem in the wrong way? Instead of applying penalties to women facing an abortion, this parliament should be working hard to alleviate the problems and concerns that can force women to the point where they have to make a decision about an abortion. It seems that this government does not even now bother paying lip-service to the concepts of family-friendly environments and workplaces or the needs of workers with family responsibilities. Things like child-care provision are woefully inadequate and unaffordable for many. The government’s recent punitive workplace relations and Welfare to Work legislation will prove to be a huge disincentive for those who wish to have children, given the struggles in providing the right balance between work and family.

Bettina Arndt pointed out recently that unintended pregnancies are the real problem and that there are solutions which will lower the abortion rate. She says:

In the slanging match of the abortion debate, we don’t hear enough about prevention—about cutting the costs of contraception, about more accessible contraception advice services, more education for doctors—

and women and families—

on the latest methods.

Last year, a notice of motion in the Senate sought to affirm reproductive health rights as a fundamental human right. I certainly support this call and believe that no minister or parliamentarian should seek to interfere with this right. As a result of that notice of motion, by agreement, we are now debating a private member’s bill, which has the same effect of removing the minister’s role in approving RU486.

I would also like to take this opportunity to correct some comments made by my colleague Senator Humphries through the course of this debate and on ABC radio 666 on Wednesday morning. Senator Humphries has often expressed his personal opposition to women having the right to manage their reproductive health, as is his right. But, in an interview which he chose to give in his capacity as Chair of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, he failed to accurately reflect a number of important facts; hence, I feel, using the opportunity to support his personal view. Most misleading was his description of the TGA as mere bureaucrats. Used in a pejorative way, Senator Humphries sought to imply that the TGA decision-making body was not equipped with the medical and health expertise to make such a decision. This is not true. Of course the TGA is equipped to make such decisions. That is its purpose. I suspect that Senator Humphries was trying to back up his own view.

As I said earlier, can you imagine the anti-choice group lobbying so passionately for the health minister to retain the decision-making right on RU486 if in fact the health minister was a vocal pro-choice member of this parliament? I do not think the same thing would happen if the tables were turned. Senator Humphries commented that RU486 was available for other therapeutic uses, such as the treatment of brain tumours and cancer, but this is not the whole story. RU486 would only be available in limited supply and at a massive cost to the patient. It would not be readily available to the average person. Surely the economics of drug availability should not be so glibly ignored by opponents of this bill. The real issue here, as I think everyone knows, is that this bill seeks to prevent the personal views on abortion of the federal health minister interfering with best medical practice under state and territory abortion laws.

RU486 does provide for a non-surgical method of termination of unwanted pregnancy. Medical practitioners advising their patients and the TGA are the appropriate authorities to make these judgments about its use and application in Australian society. That is why I support this bill. I believe every woman has the right to make decisions about her reproductive health, including abortion, and will, like many others in this place, always defend this right.

Having said that, on behalf of Senator Moore I would like to advise the Senate that the sponsors of the so-called RU486 legislation are opposed to the amendments that have been circulated by Senator Barnett and Senator Humphries. We believe that the proposed legislation is very straightforward and clear, that it effectively refers the assessment of this group of drugs to the TGA, the body charged with the assessment for all other medications. This involves the full assessment for safety, quality and efficacy. The decision on the actual usage of the drug, if assessed as safe, is then with the medical practitioner. The final decision on abortion is with the woman, taking full advice from her medical practitioner.

The amendments address administrative processes around the ministerial decision, provide a process for written statements of reasons and make the ministerial decision a disallowable legislative instrument. In effect, this could lead to a debate, such as the one we are having today, on each occasion that a decision is made. These amendments still do not acknowledge the expert role of the TGA. The role of the AHEC is not clear and would probably again involve the ethical nature of the process, not the safety or medical issue. The minister has sole power to approve or disapprove. There are no clear guidelines and no need to do more than take advice. This is just another step in the process, which does not apply to any other medicines. For that reason, the proponents will, as I will, be opposing those amendments.