Professor Caroline de Costa with the Medical Journal of Australia has renewed calls for abortion to be decriminalised in New South Wales.
She called our current laws “ambiguous and outdated,” and highlighted the difficulty rural women in particular face in terminating their pregnancies.
In NSW the law around abortion is a grey area. It is a part of the Crimes Act 1900, but was amended in 1971 to exclude pregnancies which carry a danger to women’s physical and/or mental health. This was further clarified in 1995 to include the economic and social stress of having an unwanted child.
This ambiguity means that it is often difficult for women to access termination services.
For Tumut women, the closest clinic is the Fertility Control Clinic, in Albury. There is one clinic able to perform abortions in Canberra, Dr Marie in Civic. Both of these clinics are regularly beset by anti-abortion protestors.
There is also an option for women to access the medical abortion drug, RU486, over the phone.
A new organisation called the Tabbott Foundation consults with potential patients and then mails a package to women, which includes RU486, as well as other medications that make the process easier.
They follow-up with a registered nurse until they are sure the termination has been safely completed.
Crisis Support Worker at Wagga Women’s Health Centre Julie Mecham said it is frustrating women in this area do not have accessible options for unwanted pregnancies.
“I think it’s a significant issue for regional women. The largest inland city in New South Wales (Wagga Wagga) doesn’t have appropriate services. That seems archaic to me,” she said.
“If you add any sort of barrier, such as financial difficulty, we start to see that even travelling to Albury or Canberra can be an enormous barrier on someone. When you add on barriers like being socially isolated, having a single income, or having other children then it becomes a very difficult process.
“The [surgical] procedure itself is a day procedure which means that women that do have a procedure can’t drive home. So then we’re thinking about staying overnight, or taking someone else with them that can drive them home – and then that doesn’t even cover the fee.
“I think that women are entitled to having the best medical care available to them, which means an ongoing relationship with their GP. If [phone services are] an alternative, absolutely. But I would like to see women having safe, affordable access to medical care. It’s not that hard.”
Women choosing to terminate their pregnancies have two options: surgical or medical.
The medical option requires a GP to administer the drug. It involves an ultrasound and blood test, followed by a pill which brings on a miscarriage, and is only an option if the pregnancy is under nine weeks.
However, less than five per cent of Australian GPs are certified prescribers, and only 10 per cent of pharmacies stock the drug.
Connection Medical Centre and Fitzroy Medical Centre do not prescribe RU486. Adelong Medical Centre said they refer patients to the specialist clinics in Albury and Canberra, and Tumut Family Medical Centre were contacted but the appropriate person was not available.
No GPs in Wagga Wagga are certified to administer the drug, to the knowledge of the Wagga Women’s Health Centre.
However, the GPs accessed by calling the Tabbott Foundation are legally able to administer the drug through the post.
Medical Director of the Tabbott Foundation Paul Hyland said many women don’t know that medical abortions are now an option.
“The first concept you have to understand is that medical abortion now is performed much more frequently than surgical abortion around the world,” he said.
“For instance in Scotland it’s 80 per cent, in England its 50 per cent, in the USA it’s doubled in three years, in Norway its almost 100 per cent. So we’re way behind, and the reason is that these countries have been using medical abortion since about 1988 when it was first introduced. And we have had access to it only since 2013 really, because of restrictions put in place under former governments.”
He said the Tabbott Foundation represents a lifeline for regional and rural women who can’t access termination services.
“We have patients from all across rural areas. Walgett, Broken Hill, Condobolin, Kalgoorlie…it doesn’t matter where they live,” he said.
“It doesn’t require a referral from a GP, the patient rings up and we screen them for suitability. Then if there are no contrary indications we arrange an ultrasound and a blood test through a local provider. We have a database and we try to find ones who bulk bill.
“We get the results back, and if we find no reason not to proceed, then we arrange a consultation with a specialist. In NSW and QLD we also arrange a consultation with a psychologist in accordance with state laws. Then we mail out the medications by express mail, and we send out not just the drugs that cause the abortion but all the drugs that are required.
“They then have a 24 hour number to contact a specialist if they have any problems, and there’s a 24 hour on-call nurse who checks up on them, and we arrange another blood test 7 days later.”
However, Pastor Eddie Olsen of the Tumut Community Church said that foetuses should be perceived as having human worth.
“Everything that makes a human being is already there,” he said.
“I’m a believer that life starts at the point of ovulation – everything that’s there, everything that’s required to make a human, is there. This isn’t necessarily a religious viewpoint, [scientific textbooks] talk about the fact that human development begins at fertilisation.
“If you go down to the shop that you buy a bunch of bananas and they’re green, do you throw them out? No, even though they’re not at the point that you need them yet. At what point does a human life have value?
“Do we dismember a preschooler because she might have grown up in an abusive home?
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with women who’ve had abortions, and the regret that they carry for years if not their whole life afterwards doesn’t go away. I’ve been involved in counselling a number of women who have been traumatised by their abortions. There are many stories of women who then say ‘this is the worst thing I ever did.’”
A 2015 poll found 87 per cent of Australians support women having access to abortion.
One in three women in Australia have an abortion in their lifetimes.