RU486 debate to start in Senate

Although there are other Bills being debated in the Senate this week – most notably amendments to the Defence Act to extend the power of the Government to call out our military within Australia in the event of an emergency – the main political and legislative focus is the debate on the drug widely known as RU486.

At the end of last year, a Private Senators’ Bill (that is one not introduced by the Government) was introduced which seeks to shift the responsibility for approving the use of RU486 from the Health Minister to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is the body which makes the approval decision on applications for the use of every other drug in Australia. The Bill was then referred to a Senate Committee for Inquiry. As can be seen from the Committee’s website, this issue has generated a lot of public interest, with over 1110 individual submissions and 1200 form letter submissions.

I have also received over 300 emails and letters from Queenslanders on the matter (and many more emails from elsewhere) – the vast majority of them against the legislation. This has included around 10 Doctors, and a few pharmacists.

The Committee’s report on this matter will be tabled in the Senate tomorrow (Wednesday 8th) and debate on the legislation will start soon after. It is fairly rare for Private Senators’ Bills to be brought on for full debate, but the Government agreed to allow this because of the political pressure that had built up on the issue, due in part to the fact that their own separate legislation amending the Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) could be held up through attempts to amend it to address the RU486 anomaly.

The unique way which RU486 is treated in Australia came about via an amendment moved by former Independent Senator Brian Harradine to a TGA Amending Bill in 1996. This was not treated as a conscience vote at the time, and the Coalition and Labor Party both supported it, as did one Green Senator. In 2001 the Democrats put up an amendment to another TGA Bill aimed at reversing this, but it was voted against by both the major parties.

This time this Bill will be a so-called ‘conscience vote’ for the other parties, where each Senator can vote according to their individual view. This makes the outcome harder to predict than usual. As a Democrat, I consider every vote I take to be a conscience vote, so I find the notion a bit strange that a politician has to get special permission before they are allowed to use their conscience in deciding how to vote on a matter.

It is quite rare for the major parties to allow conscience or ‘free’ votes on legislation, or anything else for that matter. The only other ones I can recall in the last 10 years have been Bills to do with allowing embryonic Stem Cell Research in 2002 and overturning the Northern Territory Euthanasia law in 1996.

The Senate will sit late on Wednesday night to allow more time for debate on the RU486 Bill and will also give it priority on Thursday to try to ensure that a final vote can be taken by 5pm that day. There is a strong desire to have the Senate finish with it this week, so the House of Reps can’t start debating it next week while the Senate has Estimates Committee hearings. I suspect some of those opposed to the legislation may seek to drag out debate to prevent a final vote occurring on Thursday, to force a delay until late February when the Senate next sits.

Although debate could be extended past the usual finishing time on Thursday, that would cause problems, as some Senators would need to leave because of other engagements. Because it is a conscience vote, the usual arrangement of ‘pairing’ Senators from different parties to keep the same numerical balance can’t be done. If a person is not there when the vote is taken, then their view on the legislation can’t be taken into account in the vote.

Although there are some unknowns, the supporters of the legislation seem fairly confident it will pass the Senate by about 10 votes. Its fate in the House of Reps is less certain.

Judging by the tone of some statements made by opponents of the legislation, I suspect the debate may get a bit feisty at times, but I always find it refreshing when politicians are freed to speak their genuine opinions, rather than just spout a party line.

For the statistically minded, since the establishment of the Senate in 1901, there have only been 8 Private Senators Bills passed by the Parliament and become law, which gives an indication of how rare it is. There have been plenty which have just passed the Senate and then languished or been rejected in the House of Reps, and also some Private Members Bills introduced in the House of Reps which have become law by passing both Houses.

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  1. This should be something that everyone, regardless of their position on abortion, should support. This drug reduces the physical and mental harm to women that is associated with abortion. If the abortion is going to happen anyway, then what good person would deny its use–and thereby impose that burden on women?

    If the drug is too dangerous or too unpredictable; then the competent authority will ban it. If it is within safe limits or its’ danger predictable, then let the doctors decide when to use it.

    Of what relevance is the issue of abortion? How few extra abortions might occur from it being medically easier? If every piece of legislation that might reduce the number of abortions were to be given this attention then there would be very few party-line votes.

    This drug has uses other than abortion. Should all drugs with other uses, but which can cause abortion, also be subject to Tony Abbott’s will? Will all poisons, regardless of their beneficial uses, be outlawed because they can be used to kill?
    Medical developments that raise new ethical issues may need to be resolved outside of the system, but not developments that merely ease what can already be done. It is ridiculous the way this issue has been manipulated by those who wish to impose their views.

    Regarding conscience votes, is it always true, regardless of specifically decided policy, that elected Democrats are free to vote how they choose?
    I know there was the GST incident with Meg Lees, but I’m not sure of the details.

  2. The “burden on women” is negligible compared to tyhat of men, who are faced with a far greater burden.

    When men have the choice to abandon responsibility for unwanted children, which women have had for decades, then I might get concerned about women’s abortion “rights”.

  3. [Leaving aside RU486 altogether…]

    Hi Andrew, I’m wondering whether, for a conscience vote (or all votes for you, since that’s how you work), how do balance your personal view with those of you constituents?

    I guess the two extremes are ‘they voted for me, so I’m free to use my own judgement’ or ‘I serve them, so I vote according to their wishes regardless of my own judgement’.

    If leaning towards the latter, the issue arises of correctly reading the feelings of the constituency, balancing the ‘squeaky hinges’ versus the silent majority and perhaps also the Democrats own polling amongst members.

    I would like to know how you handle this. Perhaps this is a whole new post…

    Thanks also for the blog, I wish more politicians would do it!

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  5. I find the Defence bill more interesting. I skimmed chapter 2 of the link and it essentially makes the military the police. Would this be a fair assessment?

  6. I support the bill – as a general rule I think pollies should stay out of individual matters and leave them to the sytems / experts developed to deal with these issues. It is totally irrelevant what the subject matter is, its a principle. Talking of abortion, rights etc clouds the issue. Those are other policy issues that if required should be dealt with in other ways.

  7. I was also wondering what Steve asked. How do senators decide when to follow “what-the-public-want” and not? For example, a senate committee that gets a 100 submissions against something but might recommend it anyway?

    In this case, despite the overwhelming number of submissions against the amendment, the committee has neither endorsed not opposed it, copping-out with:
    “the report does not formulate conclusions
    or make recommendations because the Committee considers that should be the prerogative of individual Senators in exercising a ’free vote'”

    I understand in this case that most of the submissions were about abortion instead of the issue at hand, but in my mind they still count (“voter intent” v. bureaucratic fussiness)

    If 2,000 people write in with a “no”, and only a couple of hundred can be bothered writing in “yes”, then why shouldn’t maybe the more vocal participants in democracy get their way? It might force the silent majority to get off its collective ar*e! (I personally am in favour of the amendment as it seems to make good administrative sense)

  8. I accept that Tony Abbott is entitled to his personal beliefs about abortion (and contraception, divorce etc) stemming from his religious views. However I do not accept that it is appropriate for him to make decisions as Minister for Health where he can put those personal values ahead of medical issues.
    As the legislation stands now, we could have a situation where a pro-abortion Minister for Health could approve the use of an abortion drug even if it was demonstrably dangerous on medical grounds.
    Health issues should be determined on health grounds, not religion or morals.
    Those women who are opposed to abortion on religious or moral grounds will not be forced to have abortions. They should not prevent other women who wish to have an abortion from exercising their choice.

  9. I’d like to rephrase Rossco’s last paragraph.

    “Those people who are opposed to murder on religious or moral grounds will not be forced to kill anyone. They should not prevent other people who wish to commit murder from exercising their choice.”

    Still sound like a good principle?

    The issues are not as simple as you might think.

  10. We’re gonna disagree on this one Pundit.

    If abortion is legal then basically any form of it is legal. Whether it be a pill or a procedure, there is no crime. Hence no murder.

    I’m not sure when sentient life is developed in an unborn, not something I’ve ever looked into. But I’m sure my sperm are not. I’m sure an egg isn’t. I’m pretty sure a cluster of cells isn’t either.

    Foetal abortions take place naturally as well as unnaturally. Is a miscarriage murder? I don’t think so.

    Re this drug and religion… religion should stay right out of it, so in this respect I do agree with rosco.

    Catholics for instance some of whom do not believe in abortion in any situation should not be allowed to impose their religious beliefs on those who do not share them. Just as Muslims shouldn’t be able to. The final say in a medical decision should be between the patient and the medical experts helping them.

    As rosco said… people who have a particular belief will not avail themselves of the option. So for them the decision is moot. Then let others who may use the option decide.

  11. dodgyville – if you read further down the report, you will find that the Committee has split into two groups, and each has written their own set of recommendations and arguments based on the evidence of the committee.

    The pro side starts on page 47, the anti on page 53.

  12. “In an open letter to parliamentarians, Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling urged MPs to remove RU486 from the ”restrictive control” of Mr Abbott. ”It is ideology and not science that is preventing its availability to women,” she said.

    (apparently only the ‘men’ in the Vatican and ‘men’ in the parliament have right to a view on the subject of “when life begins” – note consciousness is not formed until 28 weeks)

    ………Oh no! now Abbott faces dissent among Catholic Women!

    Abbott warns of ‘divisive’ abortion drug debate
    Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott has warned of dangerous religious divisiveness emerging in the debate over RU486.

    AND……he does not want to be held accountable as Health Minister should be forced to acknowledge the fact that the drug also has other uses and that other groups are being held hostage due to his personal views on abortion:

    RU 486/ Mifepristone
    A factual guide to the issues in the Australian Debate

    The Cost to Seriously Ill Patients

    The effective ban appears to have curtailed research into the drug’s non-abortifacient uses. Several legitimate clinical trials of RU486 for other purposes have been plagued by administrative delay, and an unprecedented degree of regulatory audit and ethics committee scrutiny, including some researchers being visited at home and questioned by police in order to ensure the drug was not being imported to induce abortion. (Foran 2005) The extensive red tape surrounding the import of
    RU486 for such clinical trials, and the high level of government scrutiny of such trials may explain the dearth of Australian research into the drug’s other uses, despite the promise it has shown in the treatment of a range of debilitating diseases. The Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing acknowledged that only a very small number of cancer
    patients had gained access to the drug. (Hansard 005)

    One reason for this may be the TGA’s Special Access Scheme (SAS) when it comes to RU486. The scheme is designed to allow registered medical practitioners to request approval to import unapproved therapeutic goods into Australia to treat individual patients, with applications evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least some
    patients attempting to import RU486 under the SAS have found the experience invasive of their privacy, stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Some have experienced lengthy delays, while others despite being classified as Category A (very seriously ill) patients have been unable to successfully import the drug. These problems have been caused by the 996 amendments to the TGA despite the clear intention of the legislation to avoid penalizing seriously ill patients. In part this is because the relatively small number of such patients, combined with intense bureaucratic scrutiny and the uncertainty
    caused by the legislation, means pharmaceutical companies have not seen it in their interest to market the drug in Australia. Only a complete repeal of the 996 amendments will provide pharmaceutical companies with the certainty they need to provide all Australian patients with the drug.

    BUT…………as the Committee report as cleared by Liberal Gary Humphries which obviously seeks to water-down the evidence re non-abortifacient use so as to get the Howard Government out of the hot-seat on this one as it has nothing to do with the legislation but negligence on the part of the Minister’s Department instead – obviously they feel it’s better to see thousands more people die than have it reflect badly on the accountable Jane Halton or the Howard Government!):

    Non-abortifacient uses of mifepristone
    1.27 The Committee received submissions and heard evidence on
    non-abortifacientuses for mifepristone.
    1.28 Mifepristone can be used to prevent pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation
    orpreventing implantation, depending on the time in a woman’s menstrual
    cycle the drug is administered.19 As well as being a means of emergency
    contraception, mifepristone can be used as a regular method of contraception
    for women unable to use contraception containing oestrogen.
    Aside from contraceptive uses, mifepristone can be used to manage
    gynaecological conditions such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids.20
    1.29 Mifepristone has also been used in the treatment of breast and
    prostate cancer, meningiomas (a type of brain tumour), and Cushing’s
    Syndrome (a disorder of the adrenal gland). There are indications that
    mifepristone may be useful in the management and treatment of glaucoma,
    depression, HIV/AIDS and dementia.21
    1.30 These uses are all investigational/unlabelled as specified in the
    Mifepristone drug Information for the United States.22 Under the current
    restricted goods provisions the Minister has given approval for the
    importation and use of RU486 for some of these uses. The
    investigational/unlabelled status of these uses would not be affected by the
    passage of the Bill.

  13. In response to Vee’s question about the Defence Bill:

    I think it is oversimplifying to say it makes the military the police. I voted against the Bill in the end, but it was an attempt to further codify the laws surrounding the power of the federal government to call out the troops for an emergency within Australia, and the use of force in such a situation.

    I just didn’t believe the protections surrounding the se of force were as tight as they could/should have been, but I don’t dispute that circumstances could arise where it may be necessary to call out of troops within Australia.

  14. In response to comments by Deuc, Steve and Dodgyville:

    Giving a detailed outline of the workings of the conscience vote within the Democrats probably is a separate post. In short, it doesn’t mean we all vote however we feel like on everything. It means we have a residual right under our party’s Constitution if we have a strong, genuinely held and well informed view which is odds with party policy, to vote according to our conscience. Members are required to be notified of all such votes against policy. All members also get a vote on pre-selections.

    With the GST incident, there were differing views about whether it was consistent with policy (and election promises and public statements) – so in effect the conscience vote right also extends to the right to vote differently to a majority decision of the Parliamentary team.

    As for the wider issue of balancing personal views with constituent views, there is no simple formula that determines the outcome each time. None the less, it is usually not that hard to determine a view most times. We have a reasonably clear set of principles. There will always be differing views in the electorate. It is important to listen to them and one can learn from and get ideas from people even where you disagree with their general position. The difficulty arises when important principles end up on competing sides on a specific issue. Balance of power situations do throw up these dilemmas from time to time, where you sometimes end up having to make ‘least worst’ decisions, and weighing up the principle against the practical policy consequences of the decision.

    It is not a straight popularity contest about which side sends in the most emails, but that does not mean they don’t have any impact.

  15. I do not think that males should be making decisions or comments on what is best or appropriate for females, re issues of abortion or drugs used.
    Her relationship with her medical advisor should be private and confidential.
    Public scrutiny by ill informed media, those of religious beliefs, politicians and ignorant bystanders, is demeaning and treading on the respect, freedom and rights of women.

  16. Hello Jaye,

    I think it is actually a wider issue than women’s rights. It is about the freedom and rights of all individuals (ie personal freedom v. state interference).

    A few posts have been of the “men should stay out of the debate”, but a lot of men completely support the amendment before parliament and many have valid opinions either way. It’s in everybody’s (all six genders) interests that medical procedures and medication are judged by experts, not ministers.

  17. The defence force stuff bothered me Andrew because it has terrible implications in the wrong hands.

    Perhaps you are not old enough to remember in graphic detail the Kent State massacre – a hot head in the marines opened fire on students at the university during a pretty peaceful anti-war protest and murdered them.

    I believe they should be called out for medical evacutations, bushfires, floods and other natural disasters and nothing else. They should never be called out to be allowed to use the least force on Australian civilians as they are supposed to defend us from invaders not turn on us like they do in police states elsewhere.

    We sent them out to turn away refugees – the reports of what they did to some of the refugees on those boats under orders – in the name of national security – should terrify everyone.

    We don’t want them to be able to turn up at a Baxter protest for example but I suspect that is precisely what Ruddock had in mind. It is bad enough have star force police attacking the red balloons without sending in the tanks and machine guns against Australians.

    Fear mongering? Me? No I just don’t trust a single thing anyone in this government does anymore.

    Perhaps Andrew you could help me with another law before the estimates session on Tuesday.

    Person A and six children are deported.

    Information turns up – I will send you all the details – but the short explanation is this.

    No interview. No application or signature for travel documents. Marked “Refused to sign”. Not stamped by the foreign government. Penalties to this foreign country well documented for 30 years that include torture, jail, forced deportation, child stealing and so on.

    Document has to be returned on arrival and is not a certificate of citizenship. Person known for nearly 4 years to have been from a different country.

    Consequences – baby nearly dies in the snow, threatened arrest and fines, imprisonment.

    Is this refoulement? Is there anywhere in Australian law that allows DIMIA to carry out trafficking of human beings for political gain? Bribes must have been paid to allow entry into the foreign country, the brother of this person was arrested 18 months earlier and the bribes were paid for him.

    Under the paying bribes to foreign officials it is a crime under our law because I do believe it is. Can you find out for me.

  18. I am worried by the lack of coverage, both here and elsewhere, of the ‘STK’ amendment to the Defence Act. It gives the Prime Minister (or, if he is indisposed, our bumbling Foreign Minister) the power to call troops onto Australia’s own citizens, something unheard of since the Eureka Stockade.
    Moreover, they need only prove a likely threat to property – not to life, not to peace, not to government.
    During the recent Cronulla race riots, in which dozens of cars where smashed, this legislation could have led to military curfews and Australia’s own blood on its streets.

  19. Zane

    As I mentioned at comment#14 above, I opposed this Bill. However, I do think some of the concerns expressed are overstated.

    I think the federal Government has always had such powers under the Constitution (although others disagree), but they just hadn’t been codified in law until 2000.

    The new Bill widened the powers covered by the law, but now, I can’t see how a situation such as the Cronulla riots would be covered. It does not cover just any threat to any property, but likely damage to ‘designated infrastructure’ which may then have a follow on risk loss of life (e.g. a power station). Cars being smashed in the street would not be covered (unless the relevant State Government believed it needed help to deal with a situation of domestic violence, in which case the State could always request such help from the federal Govt, but that has always been possible under section 119 of the Constituion)

  20. Andrew,

    I appreciate your response.

    I referred to the Cronulla riots only as a potential use for the legislation, but I disagree with your opinion that these powers couldn’t have been called into effect.

    Terminology is too loose for my liking. “[I]nfrastructure designated by the government as critical” could be anything at all, like a manhole cover.
    “Domestic violence” doesn’t seem to be defined; the Cronulla riots certainly fit one definition – violence inside Australia.

    I can’t find the Bill now so I am happy to be corrected on any of this.

    Anyway, all of this is now moot, but I appreciate you voting against it. There’s something terrifying about seeing tanks on the streets of your own city.

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