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Abortion Pill Hits A New Hurdle

 RU486 hits a new hurdle

But despite the vote, major pharmaceutical companies have decided that at this stage, they are not interested in importing and marketing RU486.

The companies have informally advised their peak industry group, Medicines Australia, of their intentions.

According to well-placed sources, the decision was based on two factors. The first is that the market for RU486 is limited and the elaborate process of approving it for importation does not make commercial sense.

But the second reason is more important. Pharmaceutical companies understand that their industry is not particularly well regarded by the community. They therefore believe it is not worth stirring up a high-profile campaign against them by the so-called "pro-life" movement.

A source close to the drug companies said: "Against that background, it's not particularly clever to register such a medicine when we're going to get a range of groups capable of generating a lot of publicity targeting the whole industry."

The companies' decision also means it will be much harder for RU486 to be placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Without PBS listing, there would be no Federal Government subsidy for the pill.

Under current law, only certified drug importers and so-called authorised prescribers (usually doctors) are allowed to apply through the Therapeutic Goods Administration to import drugs after they are approved and to then ask for PBS listing. Individuals are prohibited.

Women may still be able to access RU486 overseas on the internet, but the length of this process would probably mean the window of opportunity for the pill's effective use would be missed.

The Cairns-based doctor who helped spark the RU486 debate, Caroline de Costa, is working hard to try to get around the effective ban on the drug by the pharmaceutical industry.

As an authorised prescriber, she has begun the process of asking the TGA to allow her to import RU486.

She has approached the New Zealand not-for-profit company Ista, which sells RU486 in that country, to secure supply and is encouraging Ista's French parent company, Exelgyn, which owns the drug's patent, to apply to the TGA to import it.

But given the unwillingness of Australian drug companies to get involved, the hope of Federal MPs who voted for RU486 -- that it be readily available -- is unlikely to be realised.