Abortion is becoming increasingly difficult to access for women without money. As Adele Horin explains here women on benefits, many of whom are escaping domestic violence, some of whom are homeless, and some of whom already have more children than they can financially support, are finding it harder to access abortion because of costs that are exorbitant if you are dependent on welfare payments.
If, for example, you are a single mother who’s youngest child is about to turn eight, you are facing a reduction in your weekly payments of up to $60 as the Gillard government moves you from parenting benefits to the Newstart allowance in order to save itself some $700 million. If you find yourself on Newstart and pregnant, you’ll be faced with the choice of bringing another child into the world (which will allow you to go back on parenting benefits for another eight years) finding the money for an abortion from somewhere, or, if you are desperate enough, finding someone who will perform an abortion at a price you can afford. All this because you don’t, for whatever reason, have money.
An alternative to expensive surgical abortion is the drug Mifepristone, also known as RU 486, that can be taken in the early weeks to terminate a pregnancy. While available in countries such as Great Britain, Sweden, France and the US, under the Howard government Australian women were denied access through the so-called “Harradine Amendments,” a situation that is explained by ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold as follows:
To understand why, a short history of the offending [Harradine]amendments is necessary. Passed in 1996 with the agreement of both major parties, the amendments were designed by their author – anti-choice Senator Harradine – to forever deny Australian women access to RU 486 and any other pharmaceutical capable of inducing a non-surgical abortion. Having made the specious claim that the rigorous quality, safety and efficacy analysis the TGA does for all pharmaceuticals entering Australia was inadequate for these drugs – and these drugs alone – the Harradine amendments require the Health Minister to approve in writing the importation, trial, registration or listing of such drugs, and to table that approval in parliament. In exchange for this warped dream-come-true, Senator Harradine horse-traded his vote to privatise Telstra.
In this extraordinary deal for control of women’s bodies in exchange for telephones, veto over the importation and use of RU 486 became the responsibility of the Health Minister, rather than, as for all other drugs, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
As Health Minister it was Tony Abbott’s intention to continue to exercise his right of veto over the drug, and over Australian women’s right to access medical abortion. However, a timely confluence of political women in 2006 (explained in interesting detail here) succeeded in wresting this control from Abbott, and transferring it to the TGA.
Unfortunately, RU 486 is still difficult to obtain. Not marketed by any drug company in this country, only about 100 doctors across Australia are authorised by the TGA to import and supply the drug, in one-off importation agreements. The cost of an individual license to prescribe is upwards of $150,000. To circumvent this cost, practitioners can apply for Authorised Prescriber Status in specific circumstances, the details of which must be reported with every use of the drug.
The cost of using RU 486 compared to surgical abortion is considerably less, making it a reasonable alternative for low-income women, as well as women in rural areas whose access to abortion clinics is restricted and expensive.
RU 486 is regarded by the World Health Organisation as one of the safest and cheapest forms of termination, and one that should be available to all women.
The best outcome for Australian women is for the drug to be available nationally, and marketed by a drug company with TGA approval.
Given the acknowledged safety, economy, and efficiency of Mifepristone, there can be no legitimate reason for denying all Australian women who want it access to this form of medical termination. I can only conclude that the ongoing refusal to treat this drug as all other drugs are treated in this country is entirely to do with moral issues surrounding abortion, and the perceived unworthiness of poor women to have the same safe access to pregnancy termination as is available to their wealthier sisters.
While there are rumours of drug company interest in marketing RU 486 here, a perceived lack of political will and government reluctance to adequately deal with the issue of abortion may be seen as a deterrent to marketing.
These marketing apprehensions are only likely to increase ten-fold if we are faced with an Abbott-led Coalition government. In his article titled “Rate of abortion highlights our moral failings,” Abbott reveals his understanding of the complexity of abortion thus: “The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.”
If you are a woman, Tony Abbott is not your friend. If you are a woman seeking an abortion, Tony Abbott is your enemy.