In 2018, it is pretty shocking to realise that Canberra women still have challenges in accessing safe forms of abortion.
Abortion is still a controversial issue. Many people have entrenched and deeply held beliefs and values regarding abortion which has resulted in the regular examination of the circumstances under which local women can access this medical procedure. While acknowledging that many people are uncomfortable with the notion of the need for abortion, it is important to recognise that this is an important and legal health procedure that is necessary for many women in our community.
In the 1990s local women were forced to view emotive and non-medically relevant material prior to being able to access this procedure. Thanks to the work of a number of local female politicians at the time, this requirement was removed. Further, they worked to remove abortion from the criminal code and made legal.
While this might have been seen as the end of the battle to protect women’s right to choose, there was more to come. It was only last year that the Legislative Assembly was forced to act to ensure women could access the sole health provider without the fear of harassment and intimidation. They created a safe access zone when the ACT Greens introduced legislation to create a buffer zone around the clinic. A number of other jurisdictions have also been required to make this law, with NSW the latest government to introduce these laws.
The issue that has recently emerged is Canberra women’s ability to access medical abortions. Recent research has identified that the realistic prospects of them accessing termination procedures are challenging for women across Australia. Nationally it’s a pretty disturbing picture, and for some Australian women, the situation is grim. For instance, women in Tasmania can no longer access surgical abortion without going to the mainland, an expensive and challenging prospect for many women, particularly those who are young, poor or socially disconnected.
The introduction of new medical technologies should make things easier but on this issue, it has not necessarily been the case. People will remember that access to medical abortion drugs was an issue steeped in controversy when it was first introduced. Once again, female politicians stepped up, and a group of federal female politicians from across political lines worked to ensure that access to these drugs became possible, albeit with significant restrictions. The reason that this option is important is that it is less invasive, and can be a good choice particularly in very early stages of pregnancy.
While in the ACT medical abortion can be accessed through the sole health clinic that provides these services, Canberra women can’t access the telehealth services that are available to most other women in Australia. This approach is important as it provides a high level of privacy and confidentiality for women who have made the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. Canberra women who try to access this service are told instead to go to NSW as the service is prevented from mailing the medication to ACT residences.
This anomaly is inexplicable in a progressive community which values human rights. Thankfully there are moves afoot to address this, with ACT Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur introducing legislation to enable these telemedical services to be provided in the ACT. This is due to be debated soon but it is currently unclear if the major parties will support this move.
I think it’s important that the ACT Legislative Assembly moves quickly to ensure that Canberra women can access safe and legal medical interventions. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is an active member of the ACT Greens and ran as a candidate in the 2016 Territory election.