The Australian Senate voted by 45 to 28 on Thursday to take control over the abortion pill RU-486 away from Tony Abbott, the health minister.

Abbott, a Roman Catholic, had campaigned vigorously to retain the right to approve prescription of the drug, which is currently banned in Australia. He has previously spoken of an "epidemic" of abortions occurring in Australia.

As the bill moves to the House of Representatives this week, Howard has said that it will not be vote of confidence in his health minister.

Should the bill be passed, control over RU-486 would pass to the country's principal drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), effectively clearing the way for the drug's approval, according to many observers.

Personal issue

The TGA has the power to approve or deny the use of all other drugs in the country, but the parliament voted in 1996 to transfer the power of approval for RU-486 to the

health minister.

If the TGA were to assume powers and approve use of the drug then Australia would join Britain, the US, Russia, China, Israel, New Zealand, Turkey and Tunisia in offering the drug as an alternative to surgical abortions.

The debate has revealed divisions in Australia's executive and in the country in general.

The two-day debate before Thursday's vote became emotionally charged when two senators recalled their own abortion experiences, one of whom was Lynn Allison, the leader of the Australian democrats party.

Of 26 women who voted, 23 supported the RU-486 bill.

Howard opposes use of the pill


During the debate Amanda Vanstone, the pro-choice immigration minister, said: "One of the men said ... he doesn't want abortion to be any easier and a pill would necessarily be easier. Well, hello. Clearly he has never had the mindset of it ever happening to him. It is not going to happen to him because he is a boy."

PM disapproval

Howard said he would oppose the measure when he votes this week.

"I don't share the view - apparently of the majority of my parliamentary colleagues, certainly in the Senate - that you should hand authority for this [drug] over to the

bureaucracy," he said on the Nine television network. "

"Anything that involves members of parliament making decisions on important issues I support."

However, Howard said he did not want to be drawn specifically into the debate over abortion and would not seek to influence any of his fellow ministers in the House of Representatives.

"The only vote that John Howard will influence is his own," he said.

A survey published in the Sunday Herald Sun newspaper found that 63 of the 150 members of the lower house would vote in favour of the bill, while 27 said they were definitely opposed.