The number of women undergoing medical abortions has increased more than six-fold since the RU486 abortion pill was listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in 2013.
Whilst there is no national collection of abortion data in Australia, researchers at the University of Melbourne have published a study in which they undertake to “provide an updated estimate of the national abortion rate for women in Australia”.
“It is difficult to estimate the abortion rate in Australia, as most states do not routinely report abortion data and published national data have been incomplete,” one of the researchers, Dr Louise Keogh stated.
As a result of examining publicly available data, the researchers conclude that in 2017-18, the total number of abortions was 88,287 (or 17.3 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 years).
The study counts the number of surgical abortions (by obtaining publicly available data from the National Hospital Morbidity Database [NHMD]) and the number of medical abortions (by extracting the number of prescriptions for combination mifepristone/misoprostol from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme [PBS] database).
This provides the total number of abortions being performed in Australia each year.
The study found that the number of surgical abortions had declined in the period between 2014-15 to 2017-18:
“The number of surgical abortions for all women declined from 75,514 (15.4 per 1000 women aged 15-44 years) in 2014-015 to 67,546 (13.2 per 1000 women aged 15-44 years) in 2017-18.
“The mean annual decline in rate was 5.1%. The number of prescriptions of combination mifepristone/misoprostol for medical abortions increased from 3220 in 2014-15 to 20,741 in 2017-18.”
“In Australia, the increase in the number of medical abortions has been threefold since the medications were listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in 2013. The number of prescriptions of combination mifepristone/misoprostol for medical abortions increased from 3220 in 2014-15 to 20 741 in 2017-18.”
The researchers conclude by stating that:
“We recommend further analysis of local data, both to ensure that this medical procedure is provided across Australia, and to contribute to the evidence base informing interventions to improve sexual and reproductive health.”
With the dramatic increase in the number of women choosing medical abortion in Australia, there is a greater imperative to ensure women are fully informed about the risks associated with the procedure.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) website lists common adverse side effects to be: “nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, gastric discomfort, abdominal pain, headache, vaginal bleeding, uterine spasm, fatigue, chills / fever, effects related to the abortion itself include prolonged post-abortion bleeding, spotting, severe haemorrhage, endometritis, breast tenderness, heavy bleeding and fainting”. It notes that “bleeding and pain is even more intense with a medical termination”.
If the medical abortion fails to complete – which happens in at least 2-7% of cases – the woman will then need to undergo a surgical abortion.
Thus, the irony is that some of the reasons women choose medical abortion (for example because they live remotely or they cannot afford to travel to a clinic) may be the very reason that this method is more hazardous for them. Women experiencing adverse side effects or complications but without access to adequate medical care, particularly for those who live in regional or remote parts of Australia, can be caught in a very perilous situation. The risks of haemorrhage, infection, or even an incomplete abortion are all serious complications which can be fatal without proper access to medical treatment or care.
Pushing this method of abortion on women without informing them of all the potentially serious side effects is negligent at best. Women deserve to have all the information before them so they can give genuine informed consent.