No one took much notice back in February when Health Minister Tony
Abbott slipped in to his speech the prediction that his opponents would
have a “hollow victory” when they defeated him on the way that the
abortion drug RU486 could be made available in Australia. “I doubt that
any reputable manufacturer,” Abbott said then, “would apply to register
RU486 as an abortion drug when it has to be used in conjunction with
another drug which is not registered for that use and is not certified
as safe for that use by its manufacturer.”

Such was the euphoria at taking away from the “mad monk” the right of
Health Ministers to make a final decision on abortion inducing drugs,
that proponents of the change gave little thought to the hurdles still
to be overcome before RU486 actually became available. Perhaps when
they read the editorial in The New York Times this week they
will better understand that a prudent Therapeutic Goods Administration
in Canberra might not be in any hurry to exercise its new power.

On 10 April the Times wrote:

Reports that up to six American women and another woman in
Canada have died after pill-induced abortions in recent years are
making the regimen based on RU-486 look a lot less attractive than once
thought. Conservatives in Congress and anti-abortion organizations are
demanding that RU-486 be withdrawn from the market. That seems
premature given the uncertainties and small number of deaths in a
still-unfolding story. But women seeking an abortion will need to weigh
the risks and benefits carefully before deciding which method to choose.

The editorial referred to a second drug, misoprostol, taken two days
after the RU486 to help expel the foetus and presumably this is the
other drug Mr Abbott mentioned. “Health authorities,” the editorial
said, “will need to sort out which drug, if either, might be at fault,
whether v*ginal insertion is to blame and whether changes in a family
of bacteria have made them more lethal.”

A prudent TGA might prefer to wait for its US counterparts to do the
sorting out before delivering its own verdict – even if the
manufacturer has begun the process of seeking authorisation in
Australia.

Peter Fray

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