Abortion access in Australia becomes easier amid Roe v. wade
“He never really gets a lot of attention, and that’s the most attention he’s gotten,” said Daile Kelleher, chief executive of Brisbane-based Children by Choice. “It’s probably a watershed moment in Australia where people show they care.”
While pregnancy terminations are legal in each of the country’s eight states and territories, people often face difficulty accessing them, especially outside major cities, reproductive health experts say. “Abortion is a postcode lottery,” said Bonney Corbin, policy manager at provider MSI Australia.
In many countries, abortion is protected by law, not by court order.
Getting one can be particularly expensive for those not covered by Australia’s universal health insurance, such as some migrant workers, she said, and travel costs can be an added burden.
But the changes in South Australia are expected to lower barriers, allowing abortion on demand while regulating it through health law rather than the criminal code. Any doctor – or nurse, in the case of a medical termination of pregnancy – can perform an abortion up to 23 weeks of pregnancy.
Previously, abortions could only be performed there legally in a handful of hospitals, mostly in the state capital, Adelaide, with the approval of two doctors, and only for patients who had lived in the state for at least less than two months. The two doctors had to agree that the physical or mental health of the patient would be in danger without an abortion or that the child would be born “seriously handicapped”.
The change also allows patients to perform home abortions through telehealth consultations with interstate providers.
“It’s a big day, and it’s important to South Australian women and providers that abortion is treated more like other health care,” said South Australian co-host Brigid Coombe. Abortion Action Coalition.
Across the country in Sydney, sexual health center Clinic 66 was preparing to accept new patients on a rainy day this week. Starting Thursday, the clinic can prescribe MS-2 Step, a set of two drugs that trigger miscarriage, to patients nationwide.
Outside, the street was quiet. There were no demonstrators brandishing dolls and pamphlets; it is illegal to picket or harass people at an abortion provider. Inside, women slumped in brown leather chairs, scrolled on their phones in the waiting room while receptionists talked on the phone. But much of the clinic’s work took place outside the building.
On Monday, two doctors performed 20 telehealth consultations for abortions through the clinic’s online portal. One doctor was in Newcastle, New South Wales, the other 620 miles away on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. One patient came from a small town in Queensland, another from the nation’s capital, Canberra. Doctors sent digital prescriptions for MS-2 Step to patients to take to their pharmacies, allowing them to perform an abortion at home. In some cases, the clinic sends the drugs directly to the patients.
“We had so many clients who were just incredibly grateful for this care,” said Clinic Director Emma Boulton. “It’s really rewarding to be able to take care of women.”
Until now, South Australian patients have traveled to Victoria to access abortion via telehealth consultation, Boulton said. “But women really appreciate being able to do it in the privacy of their own home,” she added.
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Nearly 60% of Australians think a woman should always be able to get a redundancy if she chooses, according to a 2019 poll by the Center for USA Studies at the University of Sydney that found a range more liberal attitudes compared to those of the Americans. Religion seemed to be a factor, the study authors said at the time; Census results released last month also showed Australia is rapidly secularising, with almost 40% of people saying they have no religion, up from 22% a decade earlier.
“You can say we’re going in opposite directions” on abortion, said Gwen Gray, a political scientist specializing in reproductive rights at the Australian National University.
However, liberalization is relatively recent. Two years ago, women in Tasmania said they flew to the mainland for surgical abortions because it was easier than getting one in the island state. Now the conservative state government has made the procedure available at three public hospitals.
Four years ago in Queensland abortion was illegal except in cases that seriously threatened the physical or mental health of the mother. In 2010, the state sued a young couple – they were acquitted – after the woman had an abortion with the drug MS-2 Step. Now, public health departments are legally required to provide a pathway to termination of pregnancy for any patient, and the procedure is available in many public hospitals.
Abortion was decriminalized in the Northern Territory in 2017, New South Wales in 2019 and now in South Australia. But patients in some regions still face obstacles.
In Western Australia, a doctor must refer a patient to a second doctor, who will perform the abortion. After 20 weeks of gestation, the patient must sit before a panel of up to six experts, two of whom must agree to authorize the termination.
In Queensland, Kelleher said, pregnant people who contacted her had reported that some health workers flouted legal requirements by refusing to help them have an abortion or refusing to refer them to someone who would. And delays at hospitals could be long, she said, citing a recent case in which a woman ended up giving birth while seeking an abortion at nine weeks.
Coombe said the battle for fair access was not over and the reversal of deer crystallized for many the need to protect their rights.
“It certainly got the audience to sit up and take notice,” she said.