SYDNEY, Australia – Australia's parliament on Thursday stripped regulatory control of an abortion drug from the country's health minister — a staunch Roman Catholic who once warned of an "epidemic" of abortion in Australia.
The issue has created a fierce debate across the political spectrum and has drawn the attention of activists in the United States and Europe.
The Senate voted 45-28 last week to take regulatory authority over the abortion pill mifepristone — also known as RU-486 — away from Health Minister Tony Abbott and hand it to the country's main drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The House of Representatives on Thursday approved the bill with overwhelming support on a voice vote. No official count was taken.
Sen. Lyn Allison — a co-author of the bill who made headlines by revealing in a Senate speech that she once had an abortion — said both the abortion rights and anti-abortion camps had been swamped with overseas research about the drug, much of it from the United States.
"We've had an international element to this inquiry," said Allison, a senator with the center-left Democrats party.
A Senate inquiry into RU-486 before the bill was introduced received more than 1,000 submissions from advocacy groups and private individuals on both sides of the debate — including two from the United States.
On the abortion rights side, the Washington-based Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and the Feminist Majority Foundation, of Arlington, Va., submitted an eight-page document outlining data about the drug's safety.
On the anti-abortion side, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists gave a joint submission with the conservative Family Research Council describing the deaths of four American women and one Canadian after taking RU-486.
In the United States, RU-486 is approved to end a pregnancy up to 49 days after the start of a woman's last menstrual cycle. It is a two-part treatment — one pill contains a drug that blocks a hormone required to sustain a pregnancy and the other, taken days later, ends the pregnancy.
The four deaths in the United States were caused by sepsis, a bloodstream infection. Reports of fatal sepsis among the pill's users are rare, occurring in one in 100,000 cases.
Abortion in Australia is regulated by the states, and has been legal for 30 years. The procedure is funded by Australia's public health system and there is little debate among lawmakers over whether it should remain legal.
Nevertheless, the clamor over RU-486 has echoed many of the highly emotional themes heard in the U.S. abortion debate.
Leslie Cannold, the head of Reproductive Health Australia, said she would have liked more direct involvement from abortion rights advocates in the United States.
"There is a wealth of knowledge there (about) everything from language to tactics, as well as money," Cannold said. But, she added: "We didn't have any offers of help."
Kath Woolf, national spokeswoman for the Australian Federation of Right to Life Organizations, said most lobbyists in Australia relied on the "enormous amount" of research about RU-486 available in the United States.
However, she said U.S. groups never contacted her or anyone in her federation before entering their submissions.
"I didn't have any idea they were going to do that," she said of the U.S. submissions. "But they search the Net just as we do," she added, explaining how the U.S. advocacy groups might have known about the parliamentary inquiry.
The Australian debate on the issue has been charged.
Danna Vale, a lawmaker from the ruling center-right Liberal Party, provoked an angry outcry from colleagues when she said Australians were aborting themselves "out of existence" and that the country was at risk of becoming a Muslim state.
Liberal and conservative politicians alike denounced Vale's remarks suggesting that Muslim immigrants could eventually outnumber native Australians if the current rate of abortions continued as "completely ill-founded."
She later apologized for her remarks.
In a heartfelt speech before the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Treasurer Peter Costello described how 18 years ago he faced the choice of whether to allow doctors to abort his unborn child as his pregnant wife lay unconscious in the hospital. Although deciding against abortion, he stressed it was important he had been given the choice.
"By the grace of God, both survived," said Costello, a senior minister in Prime Minister John Howard's conservative coalition. "But I have no doubt that the law should not have prevented such a choice."