Australia: Eleventh hour rhetoric on Parliamentary RU486 vote
The Sydney Morning Herald -- Thursday February 16, 2006
Countdown to abortion pill vote
The emotional debate on abortion pill RU486 has resumed in parliament this morning, ahead of a conscience vote on the issue.
At around lunchtime today, MPs will decide whether to support a bill which will strip Health Minister Tony Abbott of his power of approval over the abortion-inducing drug.
Under the private members' bill, that power would be handed over to medical experts at the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, firmly backed Mr Abbott's current powers and said she did not trust the TGA.
"I do not believe that the TGA is the font of all wisdom," she said.
"I thought its handling of the Pan pharmaceutical manufacturing scandal was very poor.
"I thought their handling of their investigations into (the drugs) Celebrex and Vioxx was equally poor."
But Liberal colleague, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, said he believed in the right of a woman to choose.
"There are those who have attempted to take the high moral ground in this debate by saying support of this bill equates to support of abortion," Mr Macfarlane told parliament.
"Simplifying the debate into one about abortion ... overlooks the rights of Australian women and it betrays the freedom of informed, individual choice.
"It also neglects the opportunity for experts to seek a less, traumatic process for those women who have made one of the toughest decisions a human being can ever make."
Labor MP Anthony Byrne said he would vote to maintain the status quo.
"As a parliamentarian who has been elected to this place to make responsible judgments on behalf of the community, I believe abrogating my responsibility ... would be a failure of my duty to the Australian people," he said.
Debate on the bill has been complicated by an amendment introduced by Liberal backbencher Jackie Kelly, who is pushing to retain Mr Abbott's control over the drug but give parliament the final say.
If Ms Kelly's amendment is supported - which appears unlikely - the current bill would be thrown out entirely and she would have to introduce a new bill to be considered by parliament.
Queensland Liberal Andrew Laming has also proposed an amendment to the bill, giving parliament the final say on any TGA decision to make the pill readily available in Australia.
Dr Laming, a former obstetrician who performed surgical terminations as part of his training, today talked up the importance of his amendment, adding that he thought the vote would be "awfully close".
Drugs which challenged the health system in the way of RU486 may only come along once a decade and parliament should be allowed to debate the issue at that time, he said.
But he will vote for the bill if his amendment fails.
"This morning the House of Representatives will be asked to consider not the issue of abortion but whether we retain some say for the community in consideration of truly controversial drugs like RU486," Dr Laming said this morning.
"I am going to be fighting really hard to ensure that we have that option."
Australian Democrats Senator Lyn Allison said Mr Abbott could not be trusted to control access to abortion drug RU486 when he has played with the truth throughout the debate.
Mr Abbott last night told parliament that more than 100,000 abortions performed in Australia each year were not taken seriously.
But Australian Democrats Senator Lyn Allison said Mr Abbott had got his figures wrong.
"It is also a great pity for Tony Abbott to keep talking about 100,000 abortions a year," Senator Allison said.
"Firstly, that figure is not correct, it's nowhere near that."
She said it was not known what the accurate figure was but it was known that the 100,000 figure included procedures which were not terminations, but other medical procedures.
Mr Abbott had done himself a lot of harm in the debate and people did not want the power over access to the drug to remain in the hands of someone who had not been truthful, she said.
"I think he's done himself a lot of harm in this whole and it's a great pity because I think he's a very intelligent man," she said.
"But people are saying to me how can we leave this decision to a minister who so readily plays with the truth."
Meanwhile treasurer Peter Costello has denied that an emotion charged speech he made during debate on abortion pill RU486 was a play for the Liberal leadership.
Mr Costello, in supporting the bill, told parliament yesterday how he was faced with the option of abortion 18 years ago when his wife Tanya, who was pregnant, was unconscious in hospital.
"I think it is common knowledge that when my wife Tanya was pregnant and unconscious in hospital, some 18 years ago, I was faced with this terrible situation," he told parliament.
He said he had been advised the pregnancy was complicating the medication she would need to survive and he was faced with the "awful choice" of having to decide on termination, but had instead decided to continue both the treatment and the pregnancy.
"I have no doubt that the law should not have prevented such a choice - that the law should allow a choice, whether physical or mental health of the woman is at risk," he said.
Mr Costello said today he made the statements to lay bare his views on the pill to his Victorian electorate.
Asked if the speech could be viewed as an opportunity to reveal himself as the new leader to update and rejuvenate an ageing government, Mr Costello told ABC Radio: "No. This is a conscience vote, there are no party positions, there are no fixed party directives."
"The reason I spoke in the debate is because I have to vote.
"My constituents are entitled to know what I think."
Mr Costello said the debate had been mature despite Health Minister Tony Abbott yesterday equating abortion with murder.
"Actually, I think the whole debate has been very mature debate and I think it has been interesting because people have taken very sincere positions.
"Can I say in relation to the health minister and this is in no way a rebuff to Tony ... parliament puts in place procedures, if those procedures work and bring advantage then that's a good decision.
"If they don't, parliament can always change them, can take them away."