The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee is set to recommend the addition of RU486 to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme today, and the medical abortion drug is likely to get the go-ahead from Health Minister Tanya Plibersek.

But listing on the PBS isn’t automatic — the net cost implications to taxpayers of listing additional drugs are subject to vetting by the Department of Finance, and major new additions need cabinet approval.

Net cost shouldn’t be a hurdle for RU486: the wider availability of medical abortions is likely to reduce the use of surgical abortions, which are more expensive.

Last August, the Prime Minister spoke of her government’s support for women’s health and women’s right to choose. Plibersek has also directly expressed support for listing.

RU486 was registered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in August last year after an application by Marie Stopes International. Until 2006, then health minister Tony Abbott had prevented its registration under amendments to the Therapeutic Goods Act by anti-abortion senator Brian Harradine. After those amendments were removed, Abbott was unable to stop the limited use of RU486. However, according to a pharmaceutical industry executive, Abbott and his office threatened reprisals against any pharmaceutical company that tried to import the drug — claims Abbott strongly denies.

One of the myths peddled by anti-choice advocates is that RU486 will increase the number of abortions. That was a line repeated in the media today. But RU486 only increases the number of abortions performed early in pregnancy, as more women have access to medical abortion rather than having to wait to access surgical abortions, which for many women outside major cities can be significantly more difficult. In fact, the availability of RU486 is particularly important for women in regional communities, where access to abortion services, like all other medical services, is more limited.

The other myth is that it is harmful to women, which also got a run today from the Australian Christian Lobby. Anti-choice advocates have long relied on the alleged health impacts of RU486 to try to ban it, and Harradine cited these myths when he successfully amended the Therapeutic Goods Act. But medical abortion has been approved by the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian and NZ College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Rural Doctors Association, and the drug itself extensively investigated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. About 50 countries allow access to the drug.

The listing will put more pressure on Abbott and Peter Dutton to clarify their views on reproductive health under an Abbott government. Abbott has been at pains to indicate that he would do nothing to undermine women’s reproductive choice, in an effort to counter Labor’s unsubtle campaign to paint him as a misogynist. Dutton, who most voters would be surprised to learn is opposition health spokesman, has been even less visible on the issue than he has been on everything else in his portfolio. Dutton simply refused to say anything when the TGA registered the drug last year, although conservative Catholic MP Christopher Pyne repeated the canard about it being dangerous.

Abbott has offloaded much of his ideological baggage since becoming leader, understanding that he needed to become more moderate, particularly on gender issues, to maximise his electability. Whether that extends to his government maintaining funding for RU486 on the PBS established by Labor remains to be seen.

Peter Fray

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