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The semantics of abortion

By Helen Ransom - posted Thursday, 9 February 2006

This week the Senate will begin to debate whether to repeal ministerial responsibility for the approval of the abortion drug RU486 and hand it to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

The parliamentary debate follows a Private Members Bill, the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005, which was introduced by Senators Nash, Troeth, Allison and Moore last year.

The health problems this drug poses on women have been well documented: eight women have died following use of RU486 (five in America), and the US Government’s FDA has revealed 64 life-threatening events and 224 serious events, such as haemorrhaging and ectopic pregnancy. More than 10 per cent of women need surgery to complete the abortion. Further, RU486 causes malformation in 23 per cent of continuing pregnancies (where the drug fails to kill the child).


The RU486 issue has offered an interesting study in the art of semantics.

First, the blatantly misleading nature of the proposed Bill, which seeks to shift responsibility for RU486 onto the shoulders of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). According to the TGA, “therapeutic goods” are those used in or in connection with the following:

  1. preventing, diagnosing, curing or alleviating a disease, ailment, defect or injury;
  2. influencing inhibiting or modifying a physiological process;
  3. testing the susceptibility of persons to a disease or ailment;
  4. influencing, controlling or preventing conception;
  5. testing for pregnancy; and
  6. replacement or modification of parts of the anatomy.

Yet measured against these criteria, RU486 is clearly not “therapeutic” because:

  1. an unborn child is not a disease, defect, ailment or injury;
  2. pregnancy is more than a mere “physiological process” occurring in the mother. From conception a new human person exists, therefore there is also a “physiological process” occurring in the baby which must be considered;
  3. as with 1), an unborn baby is not a disease or ailment;
  4. RU486 is an abortifacient, not a contraceptive;
  5. RU486 doesn’t test for a pregnancy, it seeks to end it, therefore ending a life; and
  6. an unborn baby is a genetically unique member of the human race from the moment of conception, as any reputable medical textbook confirms. It is not just another “part” of the woman’s anatomy that she can dispose of at will. Rather, he or she is an individual who relies on the mother for shelter and nourishment for approximately nine months. After birth the baby continues to rely on mother and others for shelter and nourishment until a time that he or she is able to look after him or herself.

It is readily acknowledged that RU486 has other uses, including inducing women into labour who are very overdue, and treating breast cancer and some diseases of the womb. However, the use of the drug for these purposes is not in question: the Bill was introduced in the hope of allowing widespread access to RU486 as an abortifacient.


When used to kill a human being, RU486 is not therapeutic. It does not meet the above criteria and therefore has nothing to do with the TGA.

A second problem with language is the misuse of the term “choice”. It can be said that there are two camps in relation to abortion (and hence RU486): “pro-life” and “pro-choice”.

“Pro-life” is self-explanatory because it refers to those people who believe there is an innate dignity accorded to the human person from the moment of conception to the human person at the embryonic stage, the human person at the foetal stage, the human person at infancy, the human person at the childhood stage, the human person at the adolescent stage, the human person at the adult stage, and the human person at old age.

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About the Author

Helen Ransom is a political adviser and is currently studying a Grad Dip in Theology at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.

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