Abortion laws 'feed illegal drug trade'
By Bronwyn Herbert for The World Today ABC News Australia
The president of the Australian College of Obstetricians has renewed the call for abortion to be decriminalised throughout Australia.
For many women, attending an abortion clinic is unaffordable or out of reach, so increasingly it seems some women are turning to what is known as a "medical" abortion - in others words, terminating a pregnancy by drugs rather than by surgery.
And the obstetrician Caroline de Costa says many of them are illegally buying a drug to induce their own abortions at home.
"The drug Misoprostol, which is legally available for a number of reasons in Australia, is also being used undercover or covertly by some women for procuring an abortion for themselves in Australia," she said.
"I think this is probably most common amongst some immigrant women from China and from south-east Asia, where the drug is widely used in this way anyway."
Dr de Costa is a professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at James Cook University's School of Medicine in Cairns. She is also an advocate of medical abortions carried out under a doctor's supervision.
Dr de Costa says it is disturbing to hear of women buying the drug illegally.
"I'm aware of anecdotal evidence that this is happening; I've spoken to colleagues who have also mentioned that they have come across cases," she said.
"We know that it is easy to access the drug on the internet, it is sold in Australia and prescribed in Australia for other purposes so it can be illegally accessed that way."
Medical abortions are available in many western countries including the US, Sweden and New Zealand, but not in Australia unless you visit one of a handful of gynaecologists.
Edith Weisberg is the director of research at Family Planning New South Wales and a senior clinical lecturer at Sydney University.
"I think the problem is that Australia is one of the few western countries that doesn't have medical abortion available as an option for women needing an abortion," Dr Weisberg said.
Another drug used for medical abortions is RU486 and Dr Weisberg says it is concerning to hear that some women in Queensland have also been illegally sourcing this drug.
"The problem is that first of all we don't know where they're sourcing it from and how good the product is - that's the first thing," she said.
"And the second thing is that RU486 used as an abortifacient is only about 85 per cent effective if you use it by yourself, so these women may in fact have incomplete abortions and need surgical evacuation of their uterus afterwards."
Ted Weaver is the president of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians.
"We think that if people have to resort to backyard approaches for doing these things then we think that's probably not a good idea," he said.
"There's a potential for harm for women; these drugs aren't without risk and whatever the rights and wrongs of abortion we think that women, if they choose to do this, should be able to access a safe service."
Dr Weaver says abortion needs to be decriminalised nationwide.
"There needs to be legislative certainty for doctors that they won't be prosecuted for performing abortions, if that's what they want to do, and that women shouldn't be prosecuted for trying to access one, if that's also what they want to do," he said.
"So we need to take it out of the criminal code, essentially.
"Some states have enacted law reform, Victoria has and South Australia has, but in Queensland abortion is still contained within the criminal code.
"The College's position would be that it should be taken out of the criminal code and if people want to access that service, and that's their business, then those services should be provided in a safe way."