Feb 14, 2006

Anthony’s Speech on RU486 (Therapeutic Goods Amendment)


Second Reading

14 February 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (8.18 p.m.)—I want to speak in favour of the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005 and against the amendments that have been either moved or foreshadowed. The debate about RU486 has not been properly represented. This debate has been corrupted and hijacked in ways that were predicted by many. Firstly, I will put what this debate is not about. It is not about abortion. That is within the control of the states. It is also not about whether RU486 should be approved. It is about the process of approval and whether it should be subject to ministerial discretion or whether it should be, like other drugs, subject to the approval of the TGA.

Egos and morals have muddied what should have been a clear debate about good governance around the process of assessing the safety of a drug and approving its use in this country. It should have been simply about correcting the politics of what is a clouded past which led to the introduction of this as an exception—about clearing away the political hangover and placing the decision about the health of Australians back in the right hands, namely the TGA. This debate should not have been nor should it continue to be about abortion.

We have had the debate on abortion in this country, and overwhelmingly the public supports a woman’s right to choose. Australian women have fought this fight before and have won. Women have fought for their right to choose and have control over their bodies in consultation with their doctors. In many ways, we are indebted to the struggle undertaken by those women. They fought long and hard to stop women having to resort to dangerous backyard abortions—because abortions will take place; they always have. The issue is whether or not they take place safely in the interests of those women.

At the moment abortion is safely and legally available in Australia. Abortion in Australia is regulated by the states. It is not the role of this parliament to interfere with state policy and law, nor is it the role of this parliament to curtail the regulatory scope of the TGA. Decisions about the health of all Australians need to be made on the basis of medical evidence by experts charged with this role of risk assessment—namely, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The word ‘therapeutical’ has been bandied about in this debate, used by some to further cloud what should be simply issues of process. It has been used by some to imply that the nature of the work that the TGA does is marginal. It has been implied that the TGA can only assess restorative drugs. The TGA is charged with the task of assessing the safety of every other drug used in Australia—50,000 drugs which Australians rely on every day.

One of the issues underpinning this debate has been the issue of risk and the notion of an acceptable risk to women’s health. Numerous professionals have argued that RU486 constitutes a relatively low safety risk. The AMA has argued that the drug certainly is safe and notes that over one million women have been treated worldwide. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has noted that there is a substantial body of literature establishing the safety and efficacy of mifepristone, while the World Health Organisation included RU486 on the list of essential medicines, describing abortion—surgical or medical—as one of the safest medical procedures. Indeed, RU486 is extensively used and has been approved by 35 countries, including the UK, France, the US, Spain and New Zealand. The fact remains, however, that these theses, endorsements or otherwise are best evaluated by experts, not politicians.

The TGA’s risk management role means that it is specifically charged with identifying, assessing and evaluating the risks posed by the goods which it regulates. The TGA’s own report states that it will apply any measures necessary for treating the risks posed and monitoring and reviewing the risks over time. The TGA is charged with this role by the government. It is more than qualified to evaluate the risks associated with RU486, unlike me or the Minister for Health and Ageing.

The amendment proposed by the member for Lindsay is more about staving off another split in the coalition’s ranks than about making an informed decision about this drug. There is no need for the parliament to again consider the decisions reached by the TGA in relation to RU486. Yes, politicians are accountable to their constituents and the TGA is not, but politicians do not have the necessary expertise to assess the safety of a drug, unlike the health experts appointed by the government to do exactly that. If a woman is faced with an unwanted pregnancy, she is the best person to assess the moral implications of that pregnancy, just as the TGA is the best group of professionals to assess the safety of her various termination options. I have always advocated, and will continue to advocate, that decisions regarding women’s health issues should not be made by politicians; they should be made by women themselves in consultation with their doctors. I do not believe that any man can understand what an unfortunate, regrettable, difficult situation women can find themselves in.

I have been emailed by a number of people of various views asking that I vote for or against this legislation. This is a conscience vote, and I intend to exercise that in accordance with my own conscience. I respect the fact that some people would not agree with me, but I think it is unfortunate that some of the contributions to this debate—on both sides, it must be said—have not been constructive and have not shown respect.

I think it is absurd that the minister for health has attempted to make this an issue about himself. It is not about him; it is about women in Australia and their right to choose what happens to their body at a particular point in time which is difficult for them. I do not believe that the disagreement with the minister for health is about his religion and his Catholicism. I know that people of religious views have different views here, but I do not believe that people’s objections are about the fact that Tony Abbott is a Catholic. I am half Italian and half Irish and belong to a party that has its foundations in and a great closeness over its history to Catholicism. I think it is about the fact—and if you look at the Senate vote, you will see that it has reflected this—that men, in particular, do not have the same understanding, nor can we, as women have on this issue. I am sure that, if there were a women-only vote in this House, there would be a considerably higher majority than there will be, I hope, when the vote is carried here. That dimension has been an unfortunate reality.

The comments by the member for Hughes have also been unfortunate. I find it astounding that, at a press conference supporting an amendment to this bill, she should raise the issue of Australia becoming an Islamic nation over the next 50 years. They were inflammatory comments designed to create fear and division in the community. I think the comments were very unfortunate, inaccurate and best not said.

There have also been contributions on the other side of the debate, including the wearing by Senator Nettle of a T-shirt carrying the slogan ‘Tony Abbott, keep your rosaries off my ovaries’. I believe that is highly offensive to Catholics and that it is entirely inappropriate for someone who is an elected senator in the Australian parliament to wear such a slogan. If it were a similarly offensive statement against Judaism or against Islam, it would be equally outrageous and might have provoked a greater outcry.

I really think that we have a responsibility to have a responsible debate about these issues. I commend the fact that most people on both sides of this House and on both sides of this debate have done just that. I urge the parliament to support the bill and not to be distracted by amendments that are designed to confuse the issue and have a revisiting of the bill. I urge them to reject the amendments and support the bill because, surely, the TGA is the body in Australia that should have scrutiny of the health and medical treatments available to Australian women.