Bitter pill

Sydney Morning Herald
February 11, 2006

The shadow of abortion was never going to let the RU486 debate be just about a drug, writes Stephanie Peatling.

IT IS the very definition of the personal being political. Parliament House is usually dominated by rigid party discipline, and free thought, let alone free speech, does not usually feature. But no other issue can stir the political pot like abortion does, and even though this week's debate was ostensibly one about who should have approval rights over the so-called abortion drug RU486 - the minister for health or the Therapeutic Goods Administration - it became a stalking horse for politicians with anti-abortion views and, in response, a campaign for women's reproductive rights.

So when debate began on Wednesday it was perhaps not surprising that several senators spoke openly about their personal experiences. There was the revelation by the Finance Minister, Nick Minchin, that a former girlfriend had undergone an abortion, and the former family services minister Kay Patterson's stories of growing up with a friend whose mother was a backyard abortionist.

But the story with the most impact came from the Democrats leader, Lyn Allison, who threw aside months of carefully crafted arguments about the safety of the drug and the merits of who should approve it, and revealed she'd had an abortion at 18.

"I wanted to demonstrate, I guess, the way in which my experience led me to push [to have] RU486 available to women because I know what it's like to go through it," she said.

She had also had enough of her male colleagues lecturing her about what choices should and should not be available to women in the distressing situation of having an unwanted pregnancy. "They do not understand women. They do not understand the complexity, the reasons - compelling reasons - why women need terminations from time to time. They tend to see things in very black-and-white terms."

Allison was one of four women senators - with Liberal Judith Troeth, National Fiona Nash and Labor's Claire Moore - who co-sponsored the private members' bill that seeks to replace the health minister with the Therapeutic Goods Administration as the body able to assess abortion drugs.

The bill, passed in the Senate on Thursday, has an uncertain future as it moves to the House of Representatives next week. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has all but said he will vote against it. The Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, will support it. While Government women may get behind the Opposition, no one is prepared to claim victory. Both sides are preparing for more passionate speeches.

The new Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, who is also responsible for the status of women, will vote for the change and many are keen to hear her reasoning. Her support has been consistently solid but she was in a difficult position in her previous job as minister for ageing, because she was the Health Minister, Tony Abbott's, junior minister.

The vote of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, will also be keenly watched. Although he has said he holds conservative views on abortion, there are those who see this vote as a chance for him to differentiate himself from Howard.

The backbencher Judi Moylan and the new Minister for Workforce Participation, Sharman Stone, will also come out strongly in support of the change. Both have been instrumental in lobbying for it.

That women will take the lead in the lower house as they did in the Senate is no surprise. The Opposition's health spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, believes that if the same proportion of women vote yes then the bill's passage is all but assured.

Arguments against the change will be led by Abbott and the Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Vaile.

The Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja finds it difficult to check her hostility when some of her male colleagues let loose. "It is hardly surprising that anything that relates to women's bodies, including drugs, is treated differently from other types of debates in this place," she says. "After all, that is why this debate has become so controversial. Some legislators, some conservative and primarily male legislators, are finding it impossible to avoid interfering in women's reproductive health rights."

Because members and senators have been allowed a rare conscience vote, the lobbying has been intense. Everyone, from church groups and doctors to Abbott, has been furiously trying to win people over.

No one arriving at Parliament House during the week would have been able to dodge the issue. On Thursday various entrances to the building were staked out by anti-abortion campaigners waving effigies of the Virgin Mary, holding tiny dolls to represent foetuses, and brandishing black coffins.

At least two senators - Victorian Liberal Mitch Fifield and Queensland Liberal Ian Macdonald - received Abbott's personal touch. Macdonald summarises the case that was put to him. Abbott gave him three reasons to vote against the bill: to preserve the supremacy of Parliament; that passing the bill would reflect badly on himself and the Government; and that decisions on the availability of the drug should not be left to unaccountable public servants.

While grateful for the help, Macdonald does not find the arguments convincing. "I could not help observing to the minister that it was only four years ago, at the time of the republican debate, when a certain minister was quoted as saying, 'You can't trust politicians to choose a president.'

"Perhaps you cannot trust them to choose a president, but apparently politicians can make a decision on a drug which some say is life-saving and some say is life-destroying. I do, in fairness to Mr Abbott, say that he did suggest that he may have been misquoted or misunderstood on the 'don't trust a politician' comment."

Lobbying not done by Abbott is being ably performed by a former staffer, Simone Holzapfel, the head of a new group called Australians Against RU486.

IN AUSTRALIAN politics, the major parties generally dictate how their members will vote. Any normal debate is held behind closed doors. Showing the public a united front is almost mandatory. But abortion is not a normal issue.

Anyone looking for an indication of what could happen next week should take a look at how the vote went on Thursday night. Among the 45 senators who voted for the bill were two senior Government ministers - Helen Coonan and Amanda Vanstone - as well as former ministers Kay Patterson and Robert Hill. Of the 27 women senators, 24 supported the bill.

All Democrats and Greens senators voted in favour of change. Most of Labor did, and the exceptions found themselves amid a throng of Coalition senators including ministers Minchin, Chris Ellison and Eric Abetz.

Hill thought it was important enough for him to stay on as a backbencher despite resigning from his ministry earlier this year before his retirement from politics.

Watching over them from a crowded public gallery was Stone, a consistent and outspoken advocate for overturning what amounts to a ban on the drug. Stone is proof that having a different view from her leader is no bar to promotion. After a year of campaigning for change, she was promoted from a parliamentary secretary to the ministry in last month's reshuffle.

IT WAS a week that began with the death of the pioneering feminist Betty Friedan and the return to Canberra of its politicians, after nearly two months of hazy summer holidays.

For every senator who tried to separate the issue of approving the drug from the issue of abortion, there was one only too happy to connect the two ideas. The Nationals' Barnaby Joyce intoned: "Mankind comes unstuck when it fails to respect human life."

The Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan dropped into the press gallery bureau of AAP on Thursday afternoon to tell reporters that if the drug became available in Australia it would make the Senate "the killing fields".

Vanstone, the Minister for Immigration, reprimanded people who identified themselves as pro-choice or pro-life. "I would like the pro-life people to get another name because, frankly, that describes everybody in this place," she said.

"I do not know anybody who is against life. Equally, some people refer to those who would take the decision from the minister and put it where it belongs - where it is made on every other medical intervention - as being pro-abortion. Let me tell you that I do not know anybody who is pro-abortion. Nobody thinks it is a good idea. Nobody wants anybody to be in that position.

"But the people who call themselves pro-choice - and that is the position I am in - want people to make that moral decision themselves. That is their decision. So I regard myself as pro-life. I equally regard myself as pro-choice every woman that I have ever spoken to about that matter hopes that they, their daughters and their friends are never in this position.

"They are not properly described as pro-abortion. That is designed to simply aggravate and is used as a pejorative to put people down. It follows that, if some people can claim to be pro-life and exclude others from it, the inference is that the others do not care about life. That is not true."

Those who fear that if the House of Representatives passes the bill, RU486 will suddenly flood the market should consider it will be several months at least before it becomes available. Even then, it will be dispensed only under medical supervision.

The drug is made by two companies in the US, and neither has an Australian subsidiary. The US companies that have sold it have been subject to boycotts of all their products by anti-abortion groups.

The controversy leads drug groups in Australia to believe a local company would not want to attract such attention for a drug that is unlikely to be a commercial success.

This means an individual or group would need to sponsor the drug and seek an import licence for it.

Importation would then be subject to approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which would need to assess the safety of the drug.

The women sponsoring the bill keep stressing that abortion is legal in Australia. They say making RU486 available in Australia would simply give women a choice about the type of termination they undergo.

Allison said: "It's not about whether women can or should be coerced into motherhood, or harassed and shamed out of terminating the pregnancy.

"It is not about the intimidation women experience from protesters outside clinics, photographing them and accusing them of murdering children.

"Law and regulation do not change women's determination to terminate an unwanted pregnancy they just affect the safety and quality of the experience."


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