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Are abortion services available to all women in Australia?

Written by Javed Iqbal

Some Australians will be able to enter for free abortions while others in rural areas fight a “postcode lottery” to access critical health care.

Affordability greatly improves access to the service, but significant barriers remain for those living in rural and remote parts of the country.

Some women have to travel hundreds of kilometers to reach clinics where only 10 per cent of Australian GPs are registered to perform medical abortions.

Protesters gather during an abortion rights demonstration in the Brooklyn borough of New York on May 14. (AP)

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Legislation does not equal access

Abortion rights were thrust into the forefront of the conversation when the US Supreme Court overturned the country’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision this year.

Australians have the legal right to obtain an abortion, but there are many different factors that can contribute to how accessible the medical procedure is.

With different rules on abortion in each state and territory, reproductive health advocacy groups say there is still some confusion about things such as how much an abortion costs, when and where you can access abortion services and what types of abortion services are available available in Australia.

Children by Choice chief executive Daile Kelleher said while there was universal access to services across the country, for many regional women it was a matter of postcode lottery.

“However, we do know, whatever the legislation is in Australia, we have seen that there has been general access to termination of pregnancy over the last few years,” she said.

“However, legislation does not equal access.”

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Access to abortion is particularly difficult in regional and rural areas, Kelleher said.

“The hardest part is that the information is not available in too many places and it’s not something you look up until you actually need it,” she said.

Consider a woman living in a remote town in Queensland as an example.

That woman may have to travel “hundreds of miles” to access a facility that is outside of their community and away from their support network.

This can be further complicated by factors such as getting time off work or organizing childcare.

And in some cases, navigating an abusive or controlling relationship, she said.

“Any barrier to access to health care outside of their community is felt more by the people who already experience vulnerability and disadvantage,” Kelleher said.

Children by Choice CEO Daile Kelleher (Michelle Grace Dogs)

Stigma continues to create “roadblocks and barriers” to people accessing abortions, especially in regional and remote areas, Kelleher said.

“Some GPs you go to and ask about abortion or to get information about access, you can get stares,” she said.

“We hear that people have been told that abortion was not legal and that they cannot access it.

“It has huge implications for people’s ability and confidence to ask another GP.”

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Clinics are closing in parts of Australia

At the end of last year, family planning organization Marie Stopes announced closure of clinics in Southport, Townsville and Rockhampton in Queensland and Newcastle in New South Wales.

In a statement, the organization cited financial difficulties behind the difficult decision.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly. We have exhausted all possible options and extended our tenure as long as we could.

“Costs continue to rise and as such our regional clinics have been operating below the capacity required to sustain their fixed financial expenses for some time.”

The closure of the regional abortion clinics will now make it more difficult for women to access the vital service, so what is to be done?

02/07/22 Thousands of angry abortion rights supporters protested across Melbourne today.  Photo by Chris Hopkins
Thousands of furious abortion rights supporters protested across Melbourne earlier this year. (Photo by Chris Hopkins)

How do we improve access to abortions?

Chair of General Practice at Monash University Professor Danielle Mazza said there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed to improve accessibility as there is a shortage of providers in the country.

She said the system should be easy for women to navigate, Mazza said.

“At the moment, if you’re a 16-year-old girl living in a rural town in Australia, how are you going to know where to go to get an abortion if you need one?”

“You might be able to see a country doctor, but in these areas it can be really difficult to get an appointment.

Professor Danielle Mazza (Included)

“There can be a two-week wait for some training sessions.

“The GP you may encounter may be an adversary or may not know about abortion and may not know where to refer you or help you.”

More support and training was needed for all GPs and pharmacists across Australia, Mazza said.

“GPs are the main providers of this medical abortion service and (visiting a GP) is a convenient approach for many women,” she said.

Currently, not all pharmacies have the necessary medication for a medical abortion, Mazza said.

“More support is needed for pharmacists and GPs to deliver the service and we run an online community practice to support health professionals to carry out medical abortions and we look forward to the Government continuing this funding.”

Mazza said public hospitals and health services should integrate reproductive health care into their basic services.

“Each region needs to take responsibility for the delivery of this essential health care practice,” she said.

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Javed Iqbal

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