Updated: 03/21/2012 at 6:21 pm. The original version of this story gave an incorrect figure for the number of women hospitalized for complications from medical abortions. We apologize for the error.

MELBOURNE, March 19, 2012 ( – It is the first known death in Australia from the controversial pill, which was the centre of a heated debate in Federal Parliament in 2006, and more recently a criminal trial involving a young couple in the courts of Queensland.

The woman died in 2010 from sepsis – that is, a severe bacterial infection in the bloodstream – several days after being prescribed the drug, otherwise known as mifepristone, from a Marie Stopes International Australia (MSIA) clinic.

The news reached the public after the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – Australia’s government agency responsible for approving drugs – issued a notice to RU486 prescribers advising them to take a more active role in following-up with patients who are issued the drug.

The TGA and MSIA, claiming respect for patient confidentiality, have not released any details of the circumstances of the woman’s death.

The case was reported to a coroner, but no inquest was convened.

MSIA clinical services director Jill Michelson told The Australian newspaper that the woman had died some days after having the medical abortion; she could not say whether there had been further contact between the service and the woman.

“This is a tragic outcome and our sympathies are with her family. The coroner dispensed with holding an inquest, and the case is closed,” she said.

RU486 is usually administered in a clinic, while a separate drug – misoprostol – is administered by the patient themselves within 48 hours at home, causing a miscarriage.

In its coverage of the death yesterday, The Australian reported that MSIA has supervised 18,000 medical abortions in Australia since 2009. was unable to obtain a copy of the TGA notice.

Dr. Deirdre Little is a doctor from the mid-North Coast of NSW who warned a Senate inquiry in 2005 of the complications that can arise from RU486.

“This drug is not as safe as it is touted to be, it needs a lot more supervision than is usually available, particularly in rural areas; and it is a drug with some unpleasant side effects as well as complications,” she said.

Explaining why medical abortions can cause infections, she said: “The drug will cause fetal demise, but the baby may not come away straight away, and the placenta may not come away completely. So you can end up with tissue in the uterus that is a good medium for bacteria growing, that the uterus hasn’t expelled. So you’ve got a uterine surface that is prone to infection, and then that gets into the bloodstream causing septicemia.”

Dr. Caroline de Costa, a Queensland obstetrician who has been an outspoken campaigner for wider RU486 availability in Australia, told ABC Radio that she now fears a backlash against the drug.

“I think we have to be very clear that if we’re going to continue using the drug for early medical abortion and using it at home, then services have very, very good mechanisms in place for looking after women once they actually leave the clinic,” she said.

A study in South Australia last year recorded 324 instances of women being presented to emergency departments after receiving RU486 for medical and/or surgical abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Yesterday’s news comes only a few months after a forty-two year old woman in Melbourne died after visiting an abortion clinic. 

Marie Stopes International Australia would charge $450 for a medical abortion from their clinic in the Sydney CBD, although this price could vary depending on individual circumstances.