Listening to the voices of women
As far back as 1998 the abortion issue was a concern for Women’s Health Matters. Back then we were at the forefront of action to convince political representatives in the ACT Legislative Assembly of the legitimate right of women to make decisions about their own health and wellbeing, including the choice about termination of pregnancy in a medically safe and legal environment.
While termination of pregnancy has now been legal in the ACT since 2002, it has continued to be subject to public commentary, protest and condemnation.
Before 2015 there was no legal recourse to prevent protests outside termination of pregnancy services in the ACT. This saw ACT women seeking access to legal health services being faced with anti-choice protestors filming them and handing out anti-abortion material designed to change their minds. Protesters were also holding weekly prayer sessions outside clinics.
Women told us this experience was highly intimidating and harassing, and many felt considerable distress when exposed to the materials and judgmental attitudes of anti-choice protestors. Even the silent vigils conveyed disapproval and judgement and contributed to distress in women and their families.
Prior to 2019, medical terminations (RU486) could only be carried out in an approved facility, limiting options to one specialist service, the Marie Stopes Clinic, and in some circumstances Canberra Hospital.
The cost associated with medical terminations in the ACT at the time was also prohibitive for many, at around $500. Women told us they were seeking telehealth appointments interstate and then travelling across the ACT/NSW border to obtain the medical termination medication, where the cost was substantially lower.
An added complication was the differences in legislation between NSW and the ACT. While the RU486 medication could be obtained legally in NSW, abortions were not decriminalised in NSW and so criteria for access to medical termination was more restricted than in the ACT.
Setting the agenda
Women’s Health Matters led responses to all of these challenges. We gathered the data, we collected women’s stories, we identified potential changes in legislation that could provide solutions to these barriers and we collaborated with other pro-choice groups to advocate for change.
We supported these advocacy efforts with public campaigns, including our campaigns to introduce protest exclusion zones around termination of pregnancy services in the ACT.
This campaigning and advocacy led to landmark legal decisions.
Changing laws, making a difference
In 1998 we successfully advocated against an amendment tabled in the Assembly to the Health Regulation (Abortion) Bill, which attempted to place restrictions on abortion, including an “extremely narrow test for abortion limiting it to ‘grave medical’ or ‘grave psychiatric’ risk in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy…”.
In 2015 the ACT Legislative Assembly passed a bill that ensured protected zones around termination services in the ACT. It is now illegal to hold protests that can be seen or heard within the exclusion zone, guaranteeing that women and their families can seek medical advice and treatment in privacy and without harassment, intimidation or humiliation. And that healthcare staff and other workers in those locations are also protected from the impacts of those protests.
In 2019, our advocacy for greater access to medical termination medication paid off and new legislation was introduced giving trained and registered GPs and pharmacists the ability to prescribe the medication in their own clinics without the requirement of a hospital setting. Those seeking medical terminations in the ACT no longer have to face the choice between going interstate or paying high costs to access private services.
These new laws ensure greater access to safe, reliable and affordable termination and reinforce the right to choose for all ACT women.
The high costs associated with surgical terminations and access to contraception is, however, an ongoing issue for ACT women and continues to be a priority for Women’s Health Matters.