Drugs mifepristone (RU486) and misoprostol are about to be listed on the Pharmacy benefit scheme (PBS) after the body that assesses whether drugs should be subsidized gave him the green light late Friday. Medications are used to terminate pregnancy. Listing them on the PBS would make them available nationwide at an affordable price.
RU486 has been on the World Health Organizationthe list of essential drugs for years and available to women internationally since the 1980s. But it has only been placed on Australian Therapeutic Goods Registry (ARTG) in August 2012, which allowed general practitioners to prescribe the drugs.
There are no reliable figures on abortions in Australia, but at least 80,000 abortions are performed here every year. The inclusion of drugs in the ARTG meant that medical interruptions (as opposed to surgical interruptions) were accessible to more women through trained general practitioners. This is a welcome development, especially given the history of political intervention in this area of reproductive health.
In 1996, former Independent Conservative Senator Brian Harradine successfully proposed an amendment to the Therapeutic Products Act 1989 (Cwlth) which gave the Minister of Health and Aging the power to reject applications to import and market mifepristone. At the time, Tony Abbott, who is anti-choice, was Minister of Health.
No application was made because it was an expensive process and the possibility of approval was minimal. In 2006, legislation to remove the Harradine restriction was passed after a cross-party vote, but until mifepristone could be registered on the ARTG, the drug was not available.
Now the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) recommended listing mifepristone and misoprostol on the PBS. If this recommendation is approved by the federal government, or more specifically, the Tanya Plibersek, Minister of Healththe cost of drugs will drop dramatically and an early medical abortion will be much cheaper than a surgical abortion.
Plibersek said on TV that the cost of drugs would drop from $300 to $800 to $12 (for low-income people with concession cards) or $35. The cost of a surgical abortion is much higher but varies as most abortions are performed in private clinics, which decide how much to charge for the procedures individually.
The availability of these drugs at a reasonable price will be an improvement in reproductive health services in Australia, but there is still an unresolved issue regarding abortions in some Australian jurisdictions.
While changes are taking place at the federal level, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory have retained criminal abortion laws that do not reflect the values of the majority of Australians . These 19th century laws have been modified by case law and legislation, but the legal status of abortion is still unclear.
In Queensland, a woman who used mifepristone and misoprostol to self-aborte and her partner who imported the drugs from overseas through the postal system were prosecuted under the Criminal Code 1899 (Qld) in 2010. The court found that the drugs were not “harmful” as required by law and they were acquitted.
The Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Western Australia have repealed and reformed their criminal abortion laws and the new regimes recognize a woman’s right to self-determination and ability to make reproductive decisions . Tasmania is currently in the process of reforming criminal abortion laws with the Reproductive Health (Access to Termination of Pregnancy) Billwhich was adopted by the House of Assembly.
Criminal abortion laws are legal and health risks that have no place in a modern, advanced health care system. Women across Australia are entitled to the benefits of affordable medical advancement without the threat of criminal penalties. And physicians should be able to provide reproductive health services without the threat of criminal penalties.
The PBAC’s recommendation to fund RU486 is a welcome move for women’s reproductive rights advocates. But the fight is not over yet.