The state of abortion care in WA is fucking catastrophic. Abortion is still criminalised, archaic laws heavily regulate the procedure, there are horrific access issues and on top of all that, the Health Department refuses to promise reform. Experts are confident improvements can be made — there are just a lot of roadblocks that need to be removed.
Marie Stopes International Australia head of policy Bonney Corbin says eliminating access barriers is the first step.
“We need accessible abortion services throughout the state… all health practitioners across WA need to know where they are, how to support people to get there and how to have social services that can support women to get that care,” she says.
The issue of access becomes more pertinent when you remember WA is Australia’s largest state — it covers just under a third of the country’s total area. Despite its size, only two major abortion providers operate across the entire state. And they’re both located in Perth.
For doctors in regional WA, it means their referral options are extraordinarily scarce.
“For a GP in regional WA, sitting in front of a single mum who has transport issues and is experiencing financial hardship, maybe the closest abortion provider is 400km away,” Corbin says.
Even in Perth, although free abortion care and contraception are available through a state-funded clinic, it’s only accessible for people living in certain postcodes.
Abortion funding is a postcode lottery in Australia. The choice fund is one way that gaps in funding are delivered, but it relies in private philanthropists. Read more in todays piece in @ProBonoNews. @yodaberg @BonneyCorbin @MSI_Australia #AbortionIsHealthcare https://t.co/lR8zcXjt9T— Jamal Hakim (he/him) (@thejamalhakim) July 4, 2022
On top of all that, the procedure is massively regulated by the law.
Pregnant people at 20 weeks’ gestation can only access abortion if they face an “ethics panel” which consists of a minimum of six medical practitioners. Two of them must agree the person or foetus has a severe medical condition that justifies the procedure.
If the panel says no, patients must decide whether they want to fly across the country to have an abortion.
“We support women and pregnant people in that situation every week,” Corbin says.
It’s also legislated that health practitioners can conscientiously object to providing abortion care — this means they can refuse to facilitate abortion access due to their personal beliefs.
People, hospitals and health institutions are also under no legal duty to perform abortions.
In most states it’s a legal requirement for medical professionals with a conscientious objection to direct pregnant people to another service which can provide abortion care. This is not the case for WA, where doctors who refuse abortions have no responsibility to make sure you can still access one.
It’s basically the same as going to the doctor with a persistent, stabbing headache and having them refuse to refer you to a neurologist.
Another legal issue stems from the fact that abortion remains under the Criminal Code in WA.
Folks in Australia following #RoeVsWade, remember that patients can still be criminalised in both South Australia & Western Australia. The federated model and over regulation of Australian abortion law was already a quagmire. There is much work to do, globally. #DominoEffect— Bonney Corbin (@BonneyCorbin) May 3, 2022
Corbin says this means patients may be at risk of being criminalised for accessing abortion under specific circumstances. However, this is extremely rare.
“I’ve asked our clinics in WA and they think they might see someone that falls into these categories once every two months or three every two months,” she says.
For example, dependant minors — patients under the age of 16 who live with their parents, including legal guardians — cannot consent to an abortion. Instead, their parents have the final say.
In these instances, Corbin says abortion providers have always been able to work it out with the patient and their parents.
While it’s important to decriminalise abortion for the reproductive rights of everyone in WA, it’s also important to note this won’t have the impact we need if amendments don’t take accessibility into account.
“It’s about people on the ground accessing healthcare more than it is about getting our words right,” Corbin says.
Thousands of people here in Perth, Western Australia supporting the free choice of American women following SCOTUS’ backwards decision regarding abortion rights and women’s health. It could happen here. #RoeVsWade @reardon_shaun pic.twitter.com/sM1jXOURik— Daniel F Riordan (@Jomoboy_Photog) July 2, 2022
At the moment it doesn’t look like any reforms are on the table for WA.
Last month Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson admitted the state’s abortion laws were archaic but didn’t promise any changes.
PEDESTRIAN.TV asked WA’s Department of Health why Sanderson fell short of committing to any improvements.
Instead of answering the questions, the media team directed us to a recording of the Health Minister speaking at the opening of a new hospital ward in Perth and told us they had no further comments.
Sanderson spoke about WA’s abortion laws for around four minutes of the 20 minute press conference.
When asked whether legislative reforms were a priority for the McGowan government, she said: “My priority as Health Minister is ensuring we have the best health system.”
Is that a health system where the government heavily regulates people’s reproductive rights?