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Are Abbott’s careful words a smokescreen on RU486?

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Lee Rhiannon 2 May 2013

This article first appeared on Open Forum on 2 May 2013.

After the announcement that the abortion drugs RU486 and Misoprostol could be approved for tax subsidy by the government, Greens senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon questions the motives of Tony Abbott’s careful reaction.

Tony Abbott's office is working hard to manage women's perception of the opposition leader and separate him from the misogynist tag. Neutralising the hot button issue of abortion would be a key part of their job.

When the news broke last Friday (29 April 2013) that the abortion drugs RU486 and Misoprostol could soon be widely available to women across Australia it was expected that the opposition leader would chose his words carefully.

Mr Abbott's comments were very similar to his response to the 2006 cross party campaign to remove the ban on RU486. The opposition leader stated that he would heed the advice of technical experts in re-examining the ban.

While this might seem reasonable at first reading, these words ring alarm bells for those who have followed the slow progress of bringing medical abortion to Australia.

As Health Minister in 2006 Mr Abbott relied on limited advice from the Chief Health Officer. What quickly became apparent was that the man who now wants to be Australia’s next prime minister was choosy on what advice he accepted.

At the time Mr Abbott was criticised by the AMA’s rural taskforce and the Rural Doctor’s Association of Australia for failing to consult with them. He relied on advice from just one expert – the Chief Health Officer – who concluded that rural and regional health services and GPs were not equipped to provide medical abortion.

The result has been a seven year delay in making medical abortion drugs more readily available to Australian women.

Women living across Australia and particularly those living outside metropolitan areas have been disadvantaged ever since. Australia is more than a decade behind most of Europe which has led the way in providing a full range of women’s sexual and reproductive health services.

Mr Abbott's hardline attitude to pregnancy termination was again on display in 2006 when a pharmaceutical industry leader detailed on Lateline comments that the then Health Minister and one of his staffers had made.

It was reported Mr Abbott issued a clear warning that RU486 should not be marketed, and that if companies did distribute the drug they could be disadvantaged in key policy areas.

With the former Health Minister now viewed as the Prime Minister in waiting by many, the Coalition stance on medical abortion is a matter of public interest.

With the collapse in Labor's vote there is increasing likelihood that after the next election the Coalition could dominate the Senate or conservative crossbenchers could be in balance of power.

With conservative crossbencher Senator John Madigan and National Party members like Senator Ron Boswell agitating on the need to wind back the clock on reproductive rights and abortion services here and overseas a Coalition government will be under pressure to deliver on restricting abortion services.

The Madigan abortion legislation currently before a parliamentary committee would abolish Medicare rebates for terminations linked to foetus gender. While this bill will not become law before the election, and putting aside that there is no evidence that gender-selection abortions are being performed in Australia, this bill has highlighted how a conservative federal government could start chipping away at access to abortion by ending Medicare  rebates.

Mr Abbott's failure last week to explicitly back wide availability of RU486 and Misopristol suggests that the opposition leader may not have changed his views.

In 2006 Mr Abbott stated in parliament “We have a bizarre double standard in this country where someone who kills a pregnant women’s baby is guilty of murder, but a woman aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice.”

These words of the opposition leader could come back to haunt him in coming months if he is not unequivocal in his position on pregnancy termination.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that 81 per cent of those polled believe a woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion.

While that polling is from 2003, a Galaxy poll taken in February this year is a reminder that the Coalition’s approach to women's issues remains very relevant for women voters. Of the 800 women surveyed 39 per cent were concerned with Mr Abbott's views on abortion. Younger women aged 18 to 34 showed stronger reservations with 46 per cent registering their concern.

With medical abortion drugs identified as an "essential medicine" by the World Health Organisation now available in about 50 countries including France, Britain, the USA and New Zealand surely it is time that Australian women can be confident that irrespective of who forms the next federal government they will have the same choice.

Unless Mr Abbott comes out with a significant statement making clear his position on access to abortion services then women have a right to be suspicious that Mr Abbott’s current careful words are just a smokescreen designed to ensure that he floats into office without too much of a focus on his feminist credentials.

If Mr Abbott is willing to clearly back last week’s decision on RU486 and Misopristol he could be pleasantly surprised when the next poll is taken of women's attitude to the opposition leader.

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