RU-486's approval comes at bad time for Conservatives

Health Canada's approval of Mifegymiso, a drug used to end pregnancies, may come at a tricky time for the Conservatives - just days ahead of their expected election call.

Abortion drug, marketed as Mifegymiso in Canada, approved for use up to 7 weeks into pregnancy

Health Minister Rona Ambrose has stayed away from the public discussion over the abortion pill therapy RU-486, and re-emphasized Thursday that new drug approvals go through Health Canada, not the minister. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Health Canada's approval of Mifegymiso, a drug used to end pregnancies, may come at a tricky time for the Conservatives — just days ahead of their expected election call.

The New Democrats and Liberals have made their pro-choice policies clear, with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in particular taking heat for promising all MPs in his caucus will vote to maintain a woman's right to choose how to handle a pregnancy. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair maintains no MPs in his caucus are anti-abortion.

With the NDP and Liberals officially opposed to setting legal limits on abortion, the Conservatives may be the only party susceptible to political pressure by groups that want limits imposed on the drug.

Shachi Kurl, a senior vice-president at the Angus Reid Institute, says abortion isn't an issue for the majority of Canadians. But there's still a significant number who want to see limits brought in — and they tend to be part of the Conservative Party's base.

"If the Conservatives have not necessarily been seen in their eyes to be delivering on this issue, do they sit on their hands and say I'm going to sit this one out?" Kurl said.

"Or do they simply throw up their hands and say there isn't really anywhere else to go, so we'll stick with the Conservatives?"

Arm's length decision

Health Minister Rona Ambrose has stayed far away from the public discussion over Mifegymiso, also known as RU-486 or Mifepristone, and re-emphasized Thursday that new drug approvals go through Health Canada, not the minister.

"The decision does not rest with me. It's out of my hands and the decision is final," Ambrose told reporters in St. Albert, Alta.

The two-drug anti-abortion pill therapy RU-486 was only recently approved by Health Canada, at a time that coincides with a possible federal election call. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

It's not clear, however, whether voters who care about the issue will see it the same way. The Campaign Life Coalition, which says it's advocated against RU-486 since 1999, is calling on Ambrose to block the decision.

"The whole point of her being health minister is to help regulate, to help with the decision-making process," said Christina Alaimo, the group's youth co-ordinator.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long said that he doesn't want to reopen the debate on setting legal limits on abortion, although some members of the Conservative caucus were vocal opponents of abortion. 

Kitchener Centre MP Stephen Woodworth called for a special committee to study when life begins. His private member's motion went to a vote in the House of Commons and, though it was defeated 203 to 91, several cabinet ministers voted in favour, including Ambrose.

A few months after that vote, Langley MP Mark Warawa offered a private member's motion against sex-selective abortion. Warawa later said the Conservatives wouldn't let him make a statement in the House about the motion, and a committee of MPs revoked his ability to bring the motion for debate, arguing the motion was too similar to Woodworth's.

Opposition questions motives

Conservative MP David Anderson, who represents Cypress Hills-Grasslands in Saskatchewan, sent out a press release Thursday condemning Health Canada's approval of Mifegymiso.

"This decision is wrong on many levels.... Health Canada scientists have failed Canadian women and children by making this decision," Anderson said in a statement.

Liberal MP Hedy Fry questioned why it took so long for Canadians to have access to Mifegymiso and why the approval took two and a half years.

"It's just that they must have done some polling and figured out that it's something that they should do," she said.

The NDP didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the drug's developers, who has seen it approved in 60 countries, said the delay has more to do with product rights and how they were sold to different pharmaceutical companies.

"Canada has been a sort of orphan country for Mifepristone. And when we as Linepharma decided to revisit this issue, we of course decided that Canada would be one of our priorities," said Dr. André Ulmann, the lead scientist on RU-486 at Linepharma, which makes the drug. 

Ulmann said the two and a half years it took to get approval for the drug was nothing out of the ordinary, and that the company will likely apply in a year or two to extend the drug approval so it can be used up to 70 days into pregnancy rather than the 49 days for which it is currently approved.

Mifegymiso uses a combination of Mifepristone and Misoprostol over 24 to 48 hours to end a pregnancy. The drug is separate from the drug commonly called the morning-after pill, which can be taken in the first day or two after sex to prevent pregnancy.

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