It may have been a bumper month for misogyny in Australia and the rest of the world, but the news isn't all bleak. Last week, after a reproductive rights battle that's lasted more than a decade, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved registration of the pregnancy termination drug RU486, delivering a win for women and their reproductive freedom to choose.
How does it work? Well, RU486 is its common name, but its medical name is mifepristone. It works by blocking the hormone progesterone, essentially cutting off the blood supply to the pregnancy and prompting the uterine lining to begin shedding. RU486 on its own won’t cause an abortion. A drug called misoprostol is generally given 48 to 72 hours after RU486 to initiate uterine contractions that will prompt a miscarriage. It is a preferable method of pregnancy termination not just because it can be performed much earlier than surgical abortions, but can be done safely in the privacy of a woman’s home without surgical intervention. It is safe, simple and effective, and has been used widely in Europe since the 1980s.
Follow up appointments with her doctor are essential, but that’s not unusual for medical procedures.
While the drug has been technically available since 2006, tight regulations made it near impossible for women to access. Despite a sustained campaign from then Health Minister Tony Abbott in 2006, in which he attempted to veto the drug’s entry into Australia completely, regulatory control was handed over to the TGA. The decision meant that doctors had to apply to the TGA to import the drug from overseas, an expensive exercisein bureaucracy that resulted in less than 200 doctors sourcing the pill and even more women being denied full access to reproductive health care choices.
The pro-birth agenda likes to couch RU486 in deceptive terms, continuing to trot out myths about the dangers of RU486regularly. RU486 is dangerous! It’s a medical bogey monster waiting to ruin the lives of unsuspecting women - perhaps even end them! Doctors are force-feeding abortions to women so they can line their gold plated Satanic altars with more gold! In fact, RU486 is five times LESS likely to result in death than Viagra, and 13 times less likely to result in death than actually having a baby. Kind of puts things in perspective - but hey, we can’t have anyone interfering with an old man’s right to an erection.
The rigorous restrictions were seen to be a victory for those in the pro-birth movement, intent as they are on forcing women to have children they neither want nor are able to care for. RU486, a drug that can significantly lessen the emotional trauma of abortion, was thus essentially shelved to satisfy the religious politics of a Health Minister and a vocal minority of religious voters.
But all that changed last week when Marie Stopes International was approved to distribute the drug to doctors for prescription in Australia. Through Marie Stopes' not-for-profit subsidiary MS Health, doctors who've received the appropriate training and education will be able to prescribe RU486 to patients seeking a medical termination, bringing Australia's access to reproductive health care into line with more than 40 countries.
And goodness, how I cheered.
Because this isn’t about the medical risks of RU486 (there are very few) or the amount of abortions it will supposedly increase (little to none – France has had access to RU486 since 1989 with no discernible change to the abortion rate.) It’s about the fact that women will be given further autonomy and control over the circumstances of their terminations, and how they can be administered. As the Prime Minister said ahead of the announcement last week in a speech to the AMA, “Women must have the right to health care and women must have the right to choose.” Preach it JG.
It's no secret that I'm a strong advocate for women's bodily autonomy and reproductive choice. One of the very first columns I ever wrote can still be found online today ("with the blaring headline, "CLEMENTINE FORD REVEALS HER TWO NO GUILT, NO SHAME ABORTIONS!" No wonder I've never passed a job interview…). In that piece, I revealed the skeleton facts of my two terminations, maintaining that the circumstances of conception were largely irrelevant. If you believe as I do that women are entitled to choose whether or not they carry a pregnancy to term, then how that pregnancy occurred is really nobody's business.
But had I written that I'd been raped twice (I wasn’t, but that’s beside the point), perhaps I would have secured more sympathy from the readers. As it was, they saw a young woman writing with no apology about the fact she'd chosen to prioritise her life and ambitions over that of a potential life. I was reimagined as a 'slut' who 'couldn't keep her legs closed' and used abortion ‘as a contraceptive’. To read these people, you’d think I spent mywork-days scissor kicking around town in a pair of crotchless underpants, waiting for a succession of unsuspecting penises tointermittently tumble into me so I could have an excuse to feel sick, distressed and scared for a few weeks before having my uterus evacuated with a suction tube. Larks!
The argument that women use abortion as a contraceptive is so ludicrous that its source can only be traced to someone who’s never had to consider an abortion, and probably would be biologically unable to. Much as you might like to believe that women spend their Saturdays shopping for stilettos before popping in for a quick bikini wax and a D&C (two birds, one stone, result: a newer, sexier you) and then celebrating with a round of Cosmopolitans, the reality is very different. You are scared, not just because of what the abortion might entail, but of how you’ve been told you might feel afterwards. Knowing you can’t care for a child doesn’t mean you welcome the opportunity to get rid of one. It isn’t like walking into a hair salon on impulse and telling them to give you something a little bit frisky.
But if this isn’t your first abortion - if you have, like me, had the experience of finding yourself pregnant a second time through misfortune, dumb luck or just plain bad timing - you feel something else. You feelunfairly ashamed because somewhere deep inside you’ve listened to the braying critics who know nothing about you or the circumstances in which you’ve become pregnant again, but demand anyway to know how you could have been so stupid, so irresponsible again.
None of these people will ask you about the father or listen when you tell them how, when this happened the first time, he patted your shoulder awkwardly and said, “I’m sorry”. They don’t know that what frightens you most about this second pregnancy is that, despite knowing how incapable you are right now of parenting a child, you might choose to have this baby because your mother is dying and you think replacing that bond might lessen the pain to come.
They don’t know these things because they don’t care. Because in their minds, the only thing worth fighting for is the chance for a child to be born - not for it to live. If they did, they wouldn’t be protesting outside of abortion clinics, harassing women who’ve weighed up the options heavily in their minds and made a decision that they feel is the best one for them, if not tinged with a little sadness. If they really cared about children, they’d be volunteering for the Red Cross school breakfast program, helping to feed children before school whose parents either can’t be bothered or can’t afford to feed them properly. They wouldn’t be opposing welfare programs, the beneficiaries of whom include children. They wouldn’t be complaining about single mothers. They wouldn’t be opposing birth control, or sex education in schools. They wouldn’t be demonstrating at every single turn that they have absolutely no concern about children at all - only about forcing women to carry them.
And this is why RU486 is so important, and why this decision is so monumental for women’s reproductive health and freedom in Australia. The decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy can only be exercised by the women in the position of carrying it. Yet they have to endure the campaigns of shame foisted on them by ignorant people with no compassion for actual lives, who stand outside clinics calling women ‘murderers’ and shoving falsified illustrations in their faces about the precious little babies they won’t give two hoots about once they’re out of the baby making machine they call a woman.Imagine if we could take that power away from them, ensuring such matters are kept private between a woman, her doctor and the people she chooses to confide in? Imagine if she could, after careful consideration, terminate her pregnancy - no matter what number it might be on her list - in a manner that made it as comfortable and compassionate for her as possible?
Well, now at last she’ll be able to.