The long and persistent campaign to make the abortion pill RU-486 available in Canada finally seemed to be successful when Health Canada gave its approval a year ago. As of this month, women are now theoretically allowed to obtain Mifegymiso, a two-stage prescription drug designed to end pregnancies up to 49 days after conception.
In practice, and for reasons that have not been explained with any clarity by Health Canada, access to the abortion pill is proving far more restrictive than it ought to be.
One problem appears to be logistical – despite a year's advance notice, supplies of the drug will not be available until November. But even when doctors are finally able to prescribe the abortion pill, they will do so under burdensome regulatory conditions that obstruct the very women who are most in need.
Under the tight Health Canada rules, the abortion pill can be dispensed only by doctors. Family physicians will thus be expected to double as retail pharmacists – maintaining stock, liaising with distributors, processing sales, developing pharmacological expertise and finding time for a transaction that could be handled as a matter of course at the prescription counter of a neighbourhood drug store.
Critics of the new system argue, with reason, that it will limit access to a necessary medicine, particularly among women in rural and remote communities whose doctors do not have the capacity to run a parallel drug-dispensing operation. These are the women who stand to benefit most from the approval of RU-486, since they live far from the big cities where abortion clinics are most likely to be found.
If this restrictive handling of the abortion pill is meant to reflect safety concerns, it is misguided. Many prescription drugs, used wrongly, have the potential to do harm and yet we trust pharmacists to dispense them, because that is their specialty. Why should Mifegymiso be any different? The damage done by preventing women from obtaining the abortion pill they need will outdo any good that comes from excessive caution about patient safety.
But if these restrictions stem from residual nervousness about easier access to abortion, even in pill form, that is completely wrong. Women have a right to this drug and they should be able to get it without further obstruction.