Where the French inventor of the abortion pill RU 486 Etienne-Emile Beaulieu promoted his controversial drug as the ‘moral right of women’, the researchers and authors of RU 486: Misconceptions, Myths and Morals fear the chemical abortifacient has the potential to become ‘the new DIY backyard abortion 21st century style’.
RU 486: Misconceptions, Myths and Morals, written by feminist health researchers Renate Klein, Janice Raymond and Lynette Dumble was first published by Spinifex Press in 1991. This month a second edition will be released. The timing of this new edition is quite apposite because in late June 2013 the federal health minister Tanya Plibersek announced the drug RU 486 ( Mifepristone) would be added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme making the drug and the price of a medical abortion much cheaper.
The 2013 edition contains a new preface written by Renate Klein in which she explains why now is the time to republish the book. Much has happened since the first publication and it’s important to document the drug’s history and current information. When the first edition was published an abortion using RU 486 and the accompanying prostaglandin medication was only available in France and the UK. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that women in the USA could access the drug for termination of pregnancy up to 49 days from the last period. By 2011 there were 50 countries where approval for RU 486 had been given, and in 2012 approval was given by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) for MS Health, Marie Stopes International to be the importer and distributor of RU 486 in Australia. Applauding this latest move the president of Reproductive Choice Australia, Leslie Cannold declared the registration of the abortion drug RU 486 ‘a crucial victory for women and choice with just one more hurdle to go’ – its listing on the Public Benefits Scheme thereby making the drug much cheaper. Supporters of RU 486 didn’t have long to wait for in June 2013 the drug was listed bringing the price of the medical abortion from $800 to less than $37.
Words are important in our understanding of how RU 486 is known and accepted. The word ‘choice’ plays a part in the belief in this chemical and its place in the provision of abortion. In describing the registration of the drug in Australia as ‘a crucial victory for women and choice’, Lesley Cannold is suggesting that women are empowered – that we are so lucky to have this choice about how we abort. Renate Klein questions this use of the word ‘choice’ and prefers to use the word ‘decision’ when talking about abortion, explaining that it is ‘often difficult and painful’ and is not a choice between ‘a chocolate or apple cake’. Then there’s the impression that having a medical abortion is the easier option – one that can be performed in private, at home and unlike the surgical option doesn’t require a general anaesthetic. This debate is purposely devoid of the facts with women denied informed consent.
Missing from mainstream reports on the process of Ru 486 to its approval by the TGA and now its listing on the PBS is any real discussion about the efficacy and safety of the drug. Adverse effects include pain, haemorrhage, infection, septic shock, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, headache and death.
Already there has been one death of a woman in Australia from RU 486/PG reported in The Australian last year. Little is known about her death other than that the woman died from sepsis after the abortion. There have been a number of cases overseas where sepsis has also caused the death of women who have taken RU486/PG (the bacterium Clostridium was identified in uterus infections in the USA, UK and Sweden). Other women have died from severe blood loss when no medical facilities were available for blood transfusion. This is a real problem for women who live in rural areas who are given the drug to procure their abortion and are a long way from medical care if complications arise.
In an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald Renate Klein wrote:
Promoters of medical abortions promote the idea that RU 486/PG abortion is more ‘natural’ than suction abortion and that it is ‘just like a miscarriage’ and safe. Women who have used this method tell other stories. Vomiting, pain, nausea can be close to unbearable and as one women who had a recent RU 486/termination in South Australia told me she got such a high fever combined with extreme blood loss that she feared for her life. She would certainly never do it again.
And what will happen to the provision of a surgical abortion as the medical option using RU 486 goes mainstream? Will the relatively safe and quick surgical abortion remain affordable? Already there is evidence for such concern. Tasmanian Specialist Gynaecology Centres doctor Paul Hyland told The Examiner that the demand for medical terminations could force the clinic to lift the charge for surgical terminations by up to $200 to cover costs. Dr Hyland said that price would have to increase to up to $500 to cover costs, once the medical termination service reduced demand for surgical terminations.
Through painstaking research and analysis the authors of RU 486: Misconceptions, Myths and Morals uncover the truth that chemical abortion is ill-conceived and unethical. The authors who support a woman’s right to have an abortion caution that low-tech abortion services are under threat as the mainstream hails RU 486 abortion as ‘safe and effective’ which it is not.
RU 486: Misconceptions, Myths and Morals is due for release on July 15 by Spinifex Press