MELINDA TANKARD REIST
RU-486 is not the solution for women in crisis
In her campaign launch to bring the abortion pill RU-486 to this country in last month’s Medical Journal of Australia, Cairns obstetrician Dr Caroline De Costa tells the story of a young mother, eight weeks pregnant and seeking abortion. The patient had two small children, both born early due to severe pre-eclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure) and her partner was “unsupportive”. She couldn’t get an abortion and her baby was delivered at 26 weeks but did not survive. For De Costa, there is a simple way to avoid this tragic ending: RU-486.
No need to ask why her partner was unsupportive. We don’t know if it was she who really wanted the abortion or if alternatives were discussed. No questions were raised about why the pre-eclampsia wasn’t better managed or whether precautions were taken against premature labour. If only she had taken RU486 when she was two months along, everything would have been OK.
De Costa – and others in the RU-486 cheer squad – are silent about the not-so-neat and simple side of abortion-by-mouth. Such as that the young mother might have delivered the foetus (or “uterine contents” as De Costa so delicately puts it) at home, causing severe psychological distress, or may have bled for weeks and needed a transfusion.
That she may have had “retained products” (foetal parts) and needed a surgical procedure as well – as do 10% of women who take RU-486 – also appears unimportant. One young woman told the New York Times what it was like: “I felt like I was dying…it hurt so much…I couldn’t stop trembling and I felt so hot.”
These medical risks belie claims by Liberal MP Dr. Sharman Stone that RU-486 is the magic panacea for women who don’t have access to medical facilities. Airdropping RU-486 on country women would be a disaster.
Another claim is that chemical abortion is less traumatic. However, questions have been raised about the psychological effects of being completely aware during the abortion, seeing the result of the abortion, and the fact that the woman – rather than her doctor – is essentially carrying out an abortion herself. In fact, some research suggests that this is more traumatic than a medical abortion.
RU-486 carries a high risk of infection, according to Professor Ralph Miech, Molecular Pharmacology professor at Brown University. The drug suppresses the immune system which, in combination with the growth of bacteria, can result in fatal septic shock.
At least eight women (the ones we know of anyway) have died after taking RU-486 – they bled to death, suffered septic shock or other infections. The consent forms for a Canadian trial in which one woman died did not mention infection.
When abortion supporters call for more choice, it seems only to mean more methods of abortion. But research shows many women want choices other than abortion. Significant political will needs to be directed to providing pregnant women with positive and pracitical support and real alternatives rather than just more ways of getting rid of their pregnancies.
Telling women to open their mouths and take their poison pill like a good girl fails them. Women deserve better than that. They deserve creative initiatives which address and ameliorate the myriad pressures which lead to abortion.
Melinda Tankard Reist is Founding Director of Women’s Forum Australia and author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion (Duffy and Snellgrove 2000) and the forthcoming Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics.