Politics

Why The Closure Of Tasmania’s Only Abortion Clinic Should Be A Wake Up Call

There is no right to choose when the only choice is inaccessible.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a Hobart bookshop with one of my close friends. In a that’s-so-Tasmanian experience, we bumped into someone she knew.

The three of us — all women — got talking. It was only a matter of minutes before the conversation took an unavoidable turn: we shared our disappointment, our fear, our anger that our little island has just made it almost impossible for women to access a basic right of choice.

This January, it was announced that Tasmania’s only abortion clinic had closed. It ran out of money.

Unsurprisingly, the government hadn’t taken steps to prevent the closure of this vital community service. After all, abortion was in our state’s criminal code until 2013, when it was decriminalised by the former Labor government.

The Tasmanian health minister, Michael Ferguson, was a strong opponent of the 2013 bill. In a remarkable mixture of church and state, his official Liberal party biography states that his values are “underpinned by his Christian faith”. With Ferguson at the helm, we have no hope. That a government health department run by a devout Christian can allow this closure to occur shows a complete disconnect with the women of our community.

To retrieve their right to choose, women can pay $2500 for a debt-inducing private alternative. Or, they can fork out an equal amount to journey over the Bass Strait for a cheaper procedure and interstate holiday (travelling against doctor’s orders). The women who are most vulnerable during a pregnancy can’t afford that.

Really can’t afford it.

They’re poor. They’re young. They come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. They’re teens living in rural and remote communities. They can’t take a quick trip to the doctor for a prescription of the pill (which isn’t even a sure-fire prevention).

Tasmania has “the most decentralised population in Australia”. As one writer in Good Weekend recently observed, Tasmanians “remain the nation’s oldest, poorest, unhealthiest, worst educated, most underemployed and most welfare-dependent”. This closure hits some of Australia’s most disadvantaged women, placing them in a position where they’re forced to give birth when they may otherwise have pursued an abortion.

Tasmania risks producing a generation of local women who, by no choice of their own, have stepped into the role of motherhood. They may be physically or financially ill-equipped to raise children.

Doesn’t that drain the health system in the long run, anyway?

More disturbing is that women in rural and regional areas of Tasmania are more likely to suffer domestic violence, and can’t easily leave their abusive partners. Beyond this, hospitals risk receiving women who, unable to terminate, may be victims of violence during pregnancy (as are one-fifth of Australian women surveyed). The foetus may be injured; the mother may miscarry. So what’s the point? Indeed, Tasmania has extremely high rates of assault from family members, regardless of whether the woman is pregnant — and it’s on the rise.

The medical abortion drug RU486 is still available in Tasmania, but comes with its own challenges. There’s a strict nine week time limit for women to discover their pregnancy, undergo an ultrasound and source the drug from a medical professional. Women who take RU486 then get to look forward to a few days’ worth of cramping, heavy bleeding, dizziness, diarrhoea and chills — all from the comfort of their own home. Unless — and this is a rare occurrence — the bleeding doesn’t stop, in which case it’s a short (or long and hard, if the woman lives rurally) trip to the doctor again.

It’s not that Tassie folk are opposed to the right to choose: 86 percent of us support abortion being treated as a health matter, not a criminal one. Now, we have local doctors advising women not to undertake a surgical abortion, because of the health risks involved in unavoidable travel.

There is no right to choose when the only choice is inaccessible.

In light of our state election this weekend, Tasmanian opposition leader Rebecca White has promised to put up a fight. She’s pledged for surgical abortions to be made available in the public health system — if Labor wins. And tough luck for women who have needed a surgical abortion since the closure — or who will continue to need one until this maybe-going-to-happen health promise finally kicks into place.

So far, I have been fortunate enough not to require an abortion. And while I’m living in Tasmania, god forbid I ever will.

Stephanie Lauren E is a writer living in Tasmania.