CATE FAEHRMANN [3.46 p.m.]: Today I draw the House’s attention to the hardships faced by women who seek an abortion in New South Wales. Not only does a woman’s right to choose abortion remain subject to criminal law in some circumstances but there are significant financial and other access barriers. The most significant barrier is the out-of-pocket cost of an abortion conducted in New South Wales before 12 weeks of pregnancy. Women are required to pay upfront between $255 to $525.The current out-of-pocket cost is between $175 and $300 after the women has received Medicare rebates. This is a substantial amount of money that creates significant barriers for many women.
A reproductive health service that is this expensive is out of reach to women receiving the Newstart Allowance, who get as little as $474.90 a fortnight, or someone earning the minimum wage of $15 an hour. This high up-front cost means that women on a low income will either have to borrow the money from family and friends or they will have to save the money from each fortnightly payment until they have the full cost saved. This means that those women are either being forced to disclose their pregnancy or they are having a termination much later than they would prefer.
After 12 weeks gestation the cost of an abortion continues to increase. For each week after 12 weeks the cost of an abortion increases by approximately $100. The maximum gestational age available in New South Wales is up to 20 weeks, by which time the cost can be as great as $2,000. Not only do these women have to make a difficult decision but financial and other pressures may require that they make the decision in a very short period. There are many circumstances where a woman is not able to get an abortion due to lack of access to comprehensive information before 12 weeks. The increased use of long-term contraceptives, such as the Implanon, which is inserted under the skin in a woman’s arm, can result in women having irregular bleeding or no bleeding. If the contraceptive fails, many women will not become aware of the pregnancy until after 12 weeks.
For women in rural and regional areas the costs are greatly increased. Though clinics in Tweed Heads, Coffs Harbour, Newcastle, Gosford and Wollongong provide abortion services, that is not much help for women in the areas of Bourke, Dubbo or Young. In addition, the majority of regional abortion services perform abortions only to 12 weeks gestation. On top of medical fees, women from regional New South Wales must also pay for transport and accommodation to get to a clinic. As a result, many women find they may have to take further time off work or further time away from their family. Of equal concern is the reality that many women will find that their budget may not stretch to allow a support person to accompany them to the clinic and assist them with their recovery.
Not only are clinics that offer abortion services limited but the number of doctors who are able and willing to perform the procedure is in decline. A major barrier for this is that doctors are not taught how to perform an abortion at medical school. The only provider of training in how to perform an abortion in New South Wales is the Preterm Foundation. Preterm is a not-for-profit organisation that provides medical students, nursing students and students from counselling and related fields training in best-practice pregnancy termination services.
Preterm also provides training for local and overseas doctors in termination procedures. This organisation exists for the benefit of women and to empower women to make a choice. It does not exist to make a profit from their need for a termination. The valuable training services provided by Preterm are filling the void left by lack of government commitment to this very important women’s health area.
I take this opportunity to also recognise the contribution of the Bessie Smyth Foundation, which between 2003 and 2006 operated statewide on a self-funded basis. The foundation provided a valuable all-options counselling, advocacy, brokerage and microfinance service for women. Despite extensive lobbying efforts and representation of an expression of interest to secure government funding in those years, this service had to cease service delivery in December 2006 as a result of a lack of resources. This has greatly reduced the services available to women in New South Wales. In addition to these financial barriers, women are still subject to stigmatisation for making choices about their futures. A significant step in reducing this stigmatisation would be removing abortion from the Crimes Act. It remains an offence in New South Wales to have an unlawful abortion. For an abortion to be lawful, it is required that a doctor considers that the abortion is necessary because the pregnancy is a threat to the women’s mental or physical health. It should be a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. This is not the case in New South Wales as a result of both legal and financial barriers.