AUSTRALIA – Access to medical abortion pills expanded in landmark policy change

Access to medical abortion pills will be dramatically expanded in Australia under major changes that will allow all doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe the pills, and all pharmacies to stock them. This should enable medical abortions to become a first-line option for women who want them, by encouraging thousands more health professionals to provide access to the two-part medication.

Only about 10% of doctors and 30% of pharmacists are currently certified to deal with the pill – known as MS-2 Step in Australia. Restrictions will be removed from August so health practitioners don’t have to undergo special certification and registration through the drug’s importer, the non-profit MS Health.

All pharmacies will be able to dispense MS-2 Step as they would any other medication, while nurse practitioners will be able to prescribe it for the first time once the measure is enacted by states and territories. Nurse practitioners represent about 1% of nurses – they are endorsed by the Australian nursing board and have a master’s degree – and can work in settings as varied as sexual health clinics, community centres, Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations, small regional hospitals and mobile services for homeless people.

The abortion pill was first approved for use in Australia in 2006 after a fierce political debate that required a conscience vote in parliament to strip then-health minister Tony Abbott of his veto power over the drug. But it wasn’t until 2012 that MS Health started importing it and medical abortions became more widely available.

The announcement of fewer restrictions represents the first major regulatory change since the pill was registered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration a decade ago and is a significant step towards the Albanese government’s election promise to deliver equitable abortion access after it dropped its 2019 policy to force public hospitals to perform surgical terminations.

Assistant Health Minister Ged Kearney (above) said women in Australia experienced structural barriers trying to access the care they need, particularly in regional and rural areas. “We welcome these changes that remove red tape and improve equitable access to healthcare for all Australians,” she said.

SOURCE: Sydney Morning Herald, by Natassia Chrysanthos, 11 July 2023 + PHOTO by Alex Ellinghausen