In terms of Australia’s varying laws, Tasmanian women have among the best legal access to abortion, with terminations legal without qualification up to 16 weeks.
So why then are Tasmanian women often forced to travel to neighbouring state Victoria for the procedure?
This has been the case since the state’s only specialist gynaecology clinic shut its doors last month. It was the last place pregnant women could access surgical abortions without an excessive out-of-pocket cost to themselves. Abortions are not offered in the state’s public health system.
While it’s been reported a limited number of gynaecologists will perform the procedure, the cost – between $1500 and $2500 – is prohibitive to many.
Now, the future of women’s access to abortion depends on the outcome of the state’s March election.
Labor has promised to restore women’s access by promising to make surgical abortions available through public hospitals, or invest in a stand-alone abortion clinic.
However, premier and leader of the state’s Liberal government, Will Hodgman, said his party would not make the same commitment. Instead, he vowed only to continue to support women travelling to Victoria with financial assistance.
Meanwhile, Tasmania women remain in limbo.
Options for Tasmania women
Medical abortions are legal and available to Tasmanian women. The medication, which can only be taken up to nine weeks gestation, is an effective and safe way for women to terminate their unwanted pregnancies.
Beyond nine weeks, the situation becomes a lot more difficult and potentially stressful, as pregnant people consider either travelling to Victoria or finding ways to organise and afford an expensive procedure.
However, women in Tasmania aren’t without support.
Women’s Health Tasmania executive officer Glynis Flower said the organisation was working hard to keep information up to date and to support women in their choices. Flower also said her team continued to do their “utmost” to assist women.
She encouraged women who are, or may be, pregnant and are seeking services to reach out to Women’s Health Tasmania, Family Planning Tasmania, The Link Youth Health Service and Pulse Youth Health Service.
“These four services will provide information on the full range of services and options. Counselling is available if required,” Flower told Mamamia.
How does restricted access to abortion affect women?
Research shows that in most cases, an abortion does not negatively impact a woman’s mental wellbeing longterm. However, being denied access to an abortion they wanted, can.
“What we do know is that women who are denied access to abortion that does increase their stress levels and causes anxiety and actually compounds an already challenging situation,” sexual and reproductive health specialist Dr Catriona Melville told Mamamia.
“That particular study showed that women were denied an abortion there was a significant impact on their mental well being. They had more symptoms of anxiety, lower self-esteem and lower life satisfaction.”
Dr Melville, who is a senior medical officer at non-profit abortion clinic network Marie Stopes Australia, said a Scottish study also showed that women having to travel (to London) for an abortion could actually result in women just having the child.
While there aren’t Australian studies into the impact of restricted access to abortion, it’s thought that a likely result is abortions occuring at greater gestations.
Dr Melville told Mamamia that although the risk of complications from terminating a pregnancy was small, it increased as with longer gestation.
“The scientific evidence is there that essentially the earlier you can access abortion the safer it is,” she said.
Of course, the most obvious consequence of Tasmanian women’s restricted access to abortion is the stress that accompanies it.
And it’s not something unique to the state. In Queensland, while the legal situation is different (it’s actually technically still a crime in the state) the practical restrictions are similar to Tasmania’s in that there are few clinics that offer abortions and women in regional and rural areas are forced to travel long distances to access a provider.
“Women have to travel away from their support networks… and that’s obviously a quite isolating and stressful situation for some women,” Queensland pro-choice group, Children By Choice, spokesperson Kate Marsh said.
Watch the video to see how Australia’s abortion laws vary state to state. (Post continues.)
Marsh told Mamamia the stress of finding a way to pay for the procedure can also be significant.
“We support between 1500 and 2000 women a year and about 300 of those will need financial assistance from us,” she said.
“And what those women will need is support for a multitude of other sources as well. So they might borrow money from friends and family, or put off their rent payment, or need to go and get food vouchers from a local charity.”
Marsh said the fact that Tasmania decriminalised abortions in 2013 and yet their citizens’ access is no better than Queenslander’s shows that removing legal barriers is just one step in ensuring abortion is accessible for all women.
“Tasmania has a much different legal framework to us, its a really clear solution that that’s not a blanket solution for the problems in access,” she said.
Marie Stopes Australia CEO Michelle Thompson expressed this view in an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times.
“The problem is that we are not, as a nation, getting it right when it comes to the delivery of sexual and reproductive health services,” she wrote.
“State and Territory Governments are often unwilling or unable to talk to us about abortion provision. It is either deemed too hard, too controversial or not the right time.
“That needs to end now. In 2018, we need to stop treating women’s sexual and reproductive health services as being too hard, too controversial, or a case of bad timing.”
Thompson says abortion is – like mammograms or Pap tests – part of primary health care, and should be delivered as such.
“It’s time to stop sweeping this important form of women’s healthcare under the carpet.”
Have you faced barriers when accessing a safe, legal and affordable abortion? Do you think it should be treated the same way as other medical procedures?