Need for travel to Hobart for abortion ‘not ideal’

Accessing abortion services has become more difficult at a time when unplanned pregnancies are expected to increase, a Marie Stopes report says.

Chief executive of Family Planning Tasmania Cedric Manen said abortion had been classified as a ‘Category One’ service, which means it is still available during lockdown and was considered an essential reason to travel.

But he said it was “not ideal” that patients outside of Hobart need to travel across the state when the public is being told to limit movement as much as possible.

“It is not acceptable for women to be travelling from Launceston to Hobart during this time,” he said.

“We’ve advocated to government for better access in the north of the state, through provision of surgical terminations at the Launceston General Hospital.”

The state government has consistently resisted calls to make abortions available through public hospitals.

A spokesperson said “we are working hard to continue to support Tasmanians throughout this challenging time”.

“Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen health services impacted around the country and in Tasmania,” they said.

“Affordable and accessible termination services have remained available in Tasmania.

“Tasmanians remain able to travel to access medical treatment and care, with access to the Patient Transport Assistance Scheme also continuing to be available for those seeking travel assistance.”

In Tasmania, information about abortions is available through Women’s Health Tasmania, Family Planning Tasmania, the Link Youth Health Service, or Pulse Youth Health Centre. These services can start the process for a medical abortion up to nine weeks, or refer patients to an undisclosed private operator that is providing low-cost surgical abortions up to 14 weeks based in Hobart.

A provider of surgical abortion is operating in the North-West, but this is “not always” low cost.

A Macquarie University researcher found earlier in the year that Tasmanian women have continued flying to Melbourne for surgical abortions because that was a quicker, easier to understand and sometimes cheaper option. During the lockdown period, that option has ceased to be available in most circumstances.

The Marie Stopes report said that a telehealth medical abortion – the RU486 pill, which triggers an abortion – is now most feasible. This involves calling Marie Stopes for a phone consultation and then having the pill mailed to your house.

Family Planning Tasmania and other Tasmanian providers are also consulting over the phone, as well as in person for vulnerable patients.

“National telehealth provision of medical abortion throughout and following the pandemic will be critical,” the report said. “Given travel restrictions, for many people it will be the only way they can access abortion care.”

The report found that the lockdowns were “contributing to patients’ feelings of confusion, uncertainty and fear” and that many were unsure if they could legally get an abortion at this time.

“We need to consider how those key messages are communicated to ensure health consumers can access accurate movement information and can access clinics,” it said.

It said Marie Stopes was forced to cancel some later-gestation surgical abortions due to the pandemic, which meant the patients had to have the baby.

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