Last week the Italian Pharmaceuticals Agency, the body responsible for overseeing drug safety in the cradle of Catholicism, approved the sale of the medical abortion drug mifepristone (RU486) across Italy. Meanwhile in Queensland, the drug remains unavailable to doctors wishing to prescribe it.

The case against the young Cairns couple accused of unlawfully procuring an abortion, allegedly using, it now transpires, both RU486 and misoprostol, is due to proceed with committal hearings on September 3rd and 4th. The couple have yet to enter a plea but the uncertainty surrounding Queensland’s nineteenth century abortion laws has already been amply demonstrated by the case.

Increasing numbers of Queensland doctors are ceasing the provision of medical abortions using the drugs methotrexate and/or misoprostol, in the absence of a clear legal framework in which to do so. Several have also suspended applications to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to be permitted to use RU486 in Queensland. RU486 is however widely available in South Australia and increasingly so in other states.

The young couple are now on bail. Their identity has become widely known from the time of their first court appearance, and they have been the object of public vilification. They were forced to flee their home when a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the premises and groups of anti-choice protesters gathered and chanted verbal abuse.

Last Thursday night on ABC TV’s Q & A, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh was asked live to air why she had failed to act on abortion law reform in the State, how she could “sit idly by as a Queensland woman is charged with archaic abortion laws, and also how she resolves this when she is ostensibly a feminist and also a member of Emily’s List?” Compere Tony Jones remarked that the show had received a “tremendous” number of internet questions on this issue.

Bligh included in her reply that “the facts of the matter are already in the public arena and …what’s happened here is a young woman, as I understand it, has been charged. Her boyfriend brought a drug back into Australia and she has self-administered that drug.” Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? The matter has not yet reached the committal stage.

The Premier also stated that “I have very liberal views on abortion. I believe it is a private matter between a woman and her partner and her doctor.” Unfortunately the Premier has so far failed to translate her views into action. Abortion is a private matter in South Australia and Victoria and the ACT, and to a large extent in NSW and WA. In Queensland the Criminal Code makes this impossible — the law looms over the shoulder of all doctors consulted by women facing the need to make a decision about unplanned pregnancy. That’s about 15,000 Queensland women every year.

Later the Premier said that in “Queensland there are many terminations occurring legally, as there are in other states of Australia and even very young people can access these services relatively easily in a centre like Cairns.” Certainly many surgical abortions are performed each year in Queensland but all abortion is still a crime and doctors who are daily committing that crime would rely, if charged, on a defence provided elsewhere in the Criminal Code and the facts of the 1986 Bayliss case in order to avoid a conviction.

The situation regarding medical abortion (using drugs) is even less clear — the defence for abortion specifically allows only “surgical procedures”. It was up to Senator George Brandis, also a guest on Q&A, to explain the true situation, an anachronistic one that ensures abortion in Queensland remains in a grey area for both the public and the medical profession.

It is in fact quite difficult for women, especially young women, to access abortion services in Queensland, particularly outside the southeastern conurbation. Since my email address is in the public domain, I receive up to 20 emails each week from distressed young women who do not know where to turn, or who have received false or devious information from other health care providers.

Though services exist (or existed) in Cairns, women need to be aware of them and feel comfortable about approaching them. Seeking an abortion can be a very daunting experience for a young woman. As very few abortions are done in Queensland Health premises in Cairns, surgical abortion can only be provided through private facilities; most women especially young women seeking surgical abortion have no private health insurance and cannot afford the $800 or so that it costs for private facilities in the town to provide the procedure.

Given these facts, it is unsurprising that women (and not only in Cairns) might turn to illegal means to obtain drugs for medical abortion over the internet or through what is certainly an established black market within Australia.

Whether this is what happened in the Cairns case remains to be proved, but it is a well established fact that when women make a decision for abortion but find procedures inaccessible where they live, they very often either seek an unlawful (and often unsafe) abortion or travel to where safe legal abortion is available. Thus Irish women travel to Britain, Polish women to Holland, Maltese women to Spain — and Italian women wanting RU486 until this week often travelled to France.

It is known that some abortion tourism already takes place from Queensland to Victoria; under the present laws this is likely to increase, as is the practice of procuring an illegal (and therefore unsafe) abortion. The Premier would do well to reflect on whether this is what she wants for the women of Queensland.

The most enlightened remarks on the matter came from the leader of GetUp, Simon Sheikh, also a guest on the program, who pointed out that “we’ve got to recognise that if abortion was treated as other health conditions are under those regulations as opposed to the Criminal Code, someone wouldn’t need to go and look for the drugs in the first place. Abortion is a health issue. It is not an issue that should be considered under the Criminal Code. I think that’s what’s at the core of this issue.”

A view that, according to recent surveys, is also held by around 80% of Queenslanders.