South Australia remains the only state in the country where abortion is criminalised, but how are the laws really affecting people in need of these services? (Image source: Human Rights Law Centre)
Despite the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act 2020, passing earlier this month, the process to obtain a lawful abortion has yet to see alterations.
The current Act allows ‘various temporary modifications’ of South Australian laws during the pandemic, but Police Commissioner Grant Stevens has yet to make a change, with abortions still requiring the approval of two doctors before an in-clinic termination.
South Australia is the only state in Australia where abortions requires the approval of two doctors before 14 weeks.
Approval is based on the agreement the patient’s health, physical or mental, is endangered by pregnancy or in cases of a serious foetal abnormality and requires in person visits.
South Australia is also the only state where abortion remains a criminal offence.
Under the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935, both the patient and practitioner can be charged for an unlawful abortion and face time in prison.
Western Australia was the first to decriminalise abortions in 1998 and New South Wales the most recent in 2019, which has placed the spotlight on South Australian Legislation.
Not only are there additional hoops to jump through in order to have an abortion in South Australia, medical or surgical, these laws also increase the cost in both time and money.
While these laws are a strain, people in vulnerable positions are particularly at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining a safe and lawful abortion.
Despite abortions being one of the most common procedures in the country, with about 80 thousand medical and surgical terminations annually, less than four per cent of General Practitioners are qualified and registered to prescribe medical termination.
Of those, only 0.2 per cent are based in regional, rural areas, meaning those in rural and country towns are considerably isolated, and access to these services is severely compromised.
For many people seeking this service, extensive travel both prior to and for abortion services isn’t a possibility.
Whether due to living in a domestic violence situation, the financial stress of travel and time off work for appointments on top of the procedure costs or disability, this legislation leaves many restricted.
A 22-year-old Victorian woman, who remains anonymous, said the time and money put toward accessing abortion services piled on top of already distressing circumstances.
Becoming pregnant after being raped, she decided to undergo an abortion, a surgical procedure that devolved into not only a traumatic scenario, but also an expensive one.
After the initial consult, she was required to travel a total of over three hours for appointments before her actual procedure, which only added to the hurt of her experience along with her interactions with insensitive medical professionals.
“The whole consultation revolved around him asking why I didn’t use protection. Even after I told him I was raped and didn’t have a choice. He stated that we always have a choice and I should consider taking birth control in the future to prevent future pregnancies,” she recalled.
“I think making the decision to have an abortion can take a huge emotional toll on a woman and then having to validate and defend your reasons … would leave a lot of women very vulnerable.”
Even with Medicare or other healthcare cards, which may only cover a fifth of abortion costs in the first trimester, prices can stretch up to $500 leaving those in financial hardship behind.
Although South Australia permits terminations in public hospitals, which can alleviate costs, the demand far outweighs the supply and patients are often referred onto private hospitals for their terminations.
In all other states, before the nine-week mark into the pregnancy, a medical abortion can be undergone from home, immediately relieving the pressure of travel and discomfort for vulnerable individuals.
The introduction of telehealth has worked to combat issues of access, especially seeing improvements in rural areas, and its use for abortions is no different.
Telehealth allows those seeking termination to do so from their home. If they fit the criteria the medication is mailed to their home which they then take under the guidance of a doctor through a virtual appointment.
However, those seeking abortions in South Australia must still adhere to the comparatively archaic laws despite COVID-19 and social distancing requirements, facing potentially extensive travel and unnecessary interaction outside their homes, putting them and others at an increased risk for infection.
For many though, a medical tele-abortion is the best option possible.
This is the case for our anonymous source, who said telehealth would have “relive[ed] the stress of having to find time, travel costs [and] babysitting,” if medical termination was an option for her.
Of course, who wouldn’t prefer that over spending six hours at a hospital, with nurses telling her to “stop making a fuss” as she cried and leaving her alone for hours, the end of an experience she can only describe as “traumatising”.
More than anything, the telehealth service provides access, allowing a wider range of people who might otherwise be forced to go through an unwanted pregnancy to be able to exercise their right to choose.
Not only with ease of access, but the cost of a medical abortion can also dramatically decrease with tele-services: Marie Stopes Australia listing it from $99 less than an in-clinic termination.
Catherine Kevin, a member of the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition told In Daily the temporary allowance of abortion services in South Australia during COVID-19 could see the services accessed more safely and push the Government to reconsider examining the state’s dated legislation.
“Women who are vulnerable are made more vulnerable by COVID-19 and this will respond to the need in the general community. To the need of women who are most vulnerable because they live outside of the city centre or they’re in domestic violence situations,” she said.
In-patient surgical abortions are deemed an essential service during COVID-19 alongside these concerns of a rise in unintended pregnancies due to predicted increases in domestic and sexual violence.
To the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition, the primary concern is that abortion remains safely accessible during this time.
Now more than ever abortion laws in South Australia need to be reviewed to match the accessibility in the rest of the country and to reflect reproductive health as a human right.