Abortion pioneers say there’s still work to be done

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade ended America’s decades-long constitutional right to abortion, women’s rights advocates rallied to highlight the fight ongoing for many women to access pregnancy terminations.

In Australia, abortion is decriminalized in all states and territories except Western Australia, where terminations after 20 weeks must be approved by an “ethics committee“.

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Access to surgical and medical abortions – those obtained using RU486, a two-pill treatment of misoprostol and mifepristone, enrolled in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for $42.50 – has been described as a “postcode lottery “, rural and regional women being particularly disadvantaged.

Getting a medical abortion through a telehealth service from a doctor who mails the pills, including wraparound care from nurses and social workers, costs about $350. A surgical abortion starts at $620 and can cost up to $8,000 for those without a Medicare card or in late-stage pregnancy.

Senators Lyn Allison, Judith Troeth, Fiona Nash and Claire Moore won the support of all of Parliament for their private member’s bill RU486 in 2006.Credit:Andrew Taylor

“The vast majority of hospitals don’t do terminations,” Allison said. “There is still stigma attached to abortion. We are afraid to talk about it.

While women often felt lonely when seeking an abortion, she said, it’s estimated that one in four people will need one in their lifetime.

Troeth, who was a farmer in western Victoria before entering politics, said she was “particularly aware of the barriers women in rural areas face”.

“Often if there’s only one or two GPs in a small town, everyone knows who goes to the doctor and it’s much more visible than in town,” she said .

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For many rural women, accessing RU-486 required traveling to a large town or city “and, for some, that is out of the question”.

Last week, Labor Women’s Caucus Chair Sharon Claydon pledged to push for change across party lines, while Women’s Minister Katy Gallagher agreed to work with the state and territories on harmonizing legislation and that Deputy Health Minister Ged Kearney is tasked with improving access through the National Women’s Health Strategy 2020-30.

But the subject remains sensitive and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been reluctant to discuss the Commonwealth’s role, describing abortion in hospitals as “a matter of state” and dropping a policy from the 2019 Labor election campaign to link it to the federal funding.

Allison said men – including the conservative and religious type – were overrepresented in Parliament and that the fight to improve women’s access to abortion was about “man control”.

Next, Democrat Leader Lyn Allison shares a drink with then-Liberal Senator Judith Troeth to celebrate the passage of their bill RU486 on February 16, 2006.

Next, Democrat Leader Lyn Allison shares a drink with then-Liberal Senator Judith Troeth to celebrate the passage of their bill RU486 on February 16, 2006.Credit:Chris Lane

“Really, this should be a decision reserved for women in parliament,” she said.

Once Bill RU486 passed the Senate in 2006, it returned to the House of Representatives where the four women worked to gain support from all their parties, including male MPs, before moving to a vote of conscience.

“The party leadership didn’t expect us to bring it to the Senate,” Troeth recalled. “They thought it would fail.”

Getting House support seemed like an even bigger hurdle, she said, but after countless hours of advocacy, he got through it.

“I was amazed and delighted when so many young men chose to vote for him,” Troeth said. “It was a great moment.”

Now, she said, it was time to ensure that women across the country could access treatment.

MSI Australia, the country’s largest private provider, has requested new Medicare item numbers to cover the full cost of medical and surgical terminations and a national abortion access task force, while its subsidiary in nonprofit MS Health is pushing for nurse practitioners and midwives to be able to prescribe RU486.

Under current national rules, medical abortions can be performed by doctors during the first nine weeks of pregnancy, but less than 10% of Australian GPs are registered to prescribe abortion pills. Troeth and Allison support both reform proposals.

“We have to keep going,” Troeth said.

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