As the lifting of heavy restrictions on the abortion drug RU-486 is being debated, Coffs Coast women continue to have to travel
As the lifting of heavy restrictions on the abortion drug RU-486 is being debated, Coffs Coast women continue to have to travel

RU-486 pill not about abortion

By MEL MARTIN

COFFS HARBOUR doctor David Ellis can't understand why there is even a debate about the abortion drug RU-486 being made available in Australia.

"You've legalised abortion or you haven't. If you have, as we have in Australia, it makes no sense to ban one method and not the other when their safety seems to be somewhat similar," Dr Ellis said.

But mention abortion and emotions rise, and so this debate has been muddied by what RU-486 actually does.

Earlier this month, Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott ruled out lifting heavy restrictions that effectively ban the drug.

The restrictions, initiated by former independent senator Brian Harradine, mean that women wanting access to the drug have to apply through their doctor for Federal Government approval.

Yesterday, after an information session for Coalition MPs and senators, Prime Minister John Howard said he would allow a conscience vote on the question next year.

The vote will determine whether RU-486 should be dealt with like other medication in Australia, and its efficacy and safety assessed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

And should it become available, it is likely to be welcomed by Coffs Coast women seeking abortions, who currently have to travel to Tweed Heads or Newcastle for a surgical procedure.

"Some doctors are implacably opposed to abortion, but some would welcome the opportunity for patients to have access to safe termination, especially as it's not available in Coffs Harbour, making it difficult for people with financial difficulties," Dr Ellis said.

Mr Abbott is basing his position on advice from his department that RU-486 could be dangerous for women in rural and remote areas because its use requires strict medical supervision and access to emergency care.

But the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists say the latest evidence suggests RU-486 is just as safe, and may be safer, than surgical termination.

And the Australian Medical Association say the advice was confined to one hypothetical situation, which failed to acknowledge that women in rural and remote Australia could and would only ever have access to the prescription-only drug under the supervision and advice of a doctor.

"Co-ordination and backup is needed for any form of medical or surgical intervention, not just the termination of pregnancy.

"This is, and will always be, the responsibility of the local doctor," AMA senior obstetrician Dr Andrew Pesce said.

Dr Pesce added that most rural communities had access to the surgical care needed in the case of a spontaneous abortion, but not always access to surgically-induced abortions.

"However, for the small number of women (five per cent for early abortions and six per cent for later abortions) who would need surgical intervention following the use of RU-486, these back-up services would be relatively easy to access in a safe and timely manner."



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