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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 06:51 GMT
Australia ends abortion drug 'ban'
Doctor with RU486 - archive picture
The drug is already available in several countries
The Australian parliament has taken away regulatory control of a controversial abortion drug from the country's conservative health minister.

The move is set to end an effective nationwide ban on the drug, RU486.

Current Health Minister Tony Abbott is a staunch Roman Catholic who has not allowed the use of the drug.

Future requests from doctors to prescribe the drug will now be decided by a regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

The TGA already regulates the use of other drugs and medical devices.

The House of Representatives approved the measure on Thursday. No vote was actually taken, because it was clear that the majority of MPs supported the change.

Australia's Senate had already voted to take control of the drug away from the government.

The BBC's Sydney correspondent, Phil Mercer, says MPs put party politics aside and were allowed a rare conscience vote.

Their decision followed a passionate, and at times, heated debate.

Supporters of RU486 argued that it was a cheaper and less invasive method of abortion than surgery.

Thursday's vote was "a winner for Australian women and their families, and also a winner for the House of Representatives," said Senator Lyn Allison, one of the bill's co-authors.

But critics of the drug, which is already in use in 35 countries to terminate a pregnancy of up to 49 days, say it is unsafe and an elected official should be in charge of it.

Mr Abbott said it was an "unutterable shame" that there were up to 100,000 abortions a year in Australia and that some women saw this as "a badge of liberation".

Contrasting views

The issue split Prime Minister John Howard and his heir-apparent, Peter Costello.

Mr Howard voiced his opposition to the bill, saying it was the duty of parliament to take responsibility for making difficult decisions for the country.

But Mr Costello voted to remove the power of the health minister, after telling parliament how he had to decide whether to abort an unborn child as his wife lay ill and unconscious in hospital, 18 years ago.

"The choice I made was to continue both the treatment and the pregnancy. By the grace of God, both survived," he said.

"I have no doubt that the law should not have prevented such a choice - that the law should allow a choice, whether physical or mental health of the woman is at risk," Mr Costello said.

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