Following the recent decriminalisation of abortion laws in some jurisdictions across Australia, the focus of abortion advocates has now turned to the issue of “equality of access”. There are calls for public funding and support to enable women who need to travel long distances to access abortions, particularly for women who don’t have the means to pay for interstate travel or whose personal situations make it difficult for them to leave home or miss work in order to attend clinics some distance away.
Facing a somewhat reversed situation with certain states implementing more restrictive abortion laws, a similar emphasis is being seen in the private sector in the US, with companies now offering help to cover travel costs for employees who have to go out of state for abortions.
Following the passage of controversial abortion legislation in Queensland in 2018, the issue of equality of access has now become a particular focus of advocates, given the size of the state and the concentration of abortion services in the major cities. Following the closure of a number of Marie Stopes Australia regional abortion clinics last year (attributed to rising costs due to Covid-19), there are claims that it is now more difficult than ever for women to access an abortion, with calls for these shortfalls to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath has responded to criticisms with a commitment to make sure "women can access safe and high-quality termination of pregnancy services no matter where they live".
Local Labor MP Brittany Lauga, Member for Keppel, has been a vocal critic of lack of abortion access in the regions in Queensland:
“When we passed the bill it was about equality and access to health care.”
“There are 12 and 13 year olds having to go to Brisbane,” Ms Lauga said. “You can imagine if you’re that age, and you don’t want your parents to know, you can’t just go to the day surgery like you used to.”
And yet, there are broader considerations that need to be addressed when discussing ‘equality of access’; how is funding to be prioritised between women who want abortions, and those who want to continue their pregnancies? What are the real needs of women who find themselves experiencing an unexpected pregnancy? Is funding their travel to an abortion clinic really the highest priority?
If the government makes good on its commitment to ensure equality of access to abortions for every woman in Queensland, will there be a concomitant commitment to paying for the funding and support needs for women who find themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances and do not want an abortion? Will these women also be given a firm commitment of financial and other support, if they choose to keep their children?
The evidence demonstrates that the reasons women ‘choose’ abortion are complex. There are many who do so because of fear of intimate partner violence, coercion from their partner or others, study or career pressures, and a lack of financial and emotional support. It cannot be the case that governments simply prioritise funding of abortions whilst leaving women on their own to deal with the underlying factors that may have led to the desire for an abortion in the first place.
Given the evidence from studies that show that women who have abortions are 30 per cent more likely to suffer mental health problems than other women, including depression, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders, it is also gravely irresponsible for the government to be promoting abortion at the expense of other alternatives. The Queensland Government itself has recognised the increased risk of suicide worldwide among women who have abortions.
We need to do far more as a society to address the significant pressures that pregnant women are facing and to provide positive, non-harmful solutions for them and their children. This includes addressing issues of domestic violence, access to and affordability of childcare, flexible workplace and study arrangements, and access to pregnancy counselling and support.
Finally, reports that 12 and 13 year olds are in need of abortions should sound alarm bells rather than simply provide the background noise to the campaign for more public funding for abortions. What circumstances are these children in, that they find themselves pregnant and unable to confide in their own parents? Has there been an investigation to ensure they are not the victims of child sexual abuse? What other support are these girls receiving? What follow up would they receive upon returning home, to help them deal with possible post-abortion complications? Are they provided with post-abortion counselling? Are they screened for post-abortion complications, physical and psychological?
We need to stop promoting abortion as a catch-all, magic bullet solution to the issues facing women. It is time to start a conversation about the complexities surrounding unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, and at the very least, offering women support that addresses the underlying issues that may be drivers of requests for abortion.
If governments are serious about their commitments to providing genuine support to women, funding commitments must not be limited simply to funding abortions; instead, there must be commitment to a woman-centred approach that provides holistic support to women facing unplanned pregnancies.