Abortion law in South Australia has not changed in 50 years. The procedure is still covered by the state’s criminal law, and intentionally self-aborting or acting to abort another person’s pregnancy can be punished by life imprisonment. If anyone, including doctors, supplies women with medication or tools to carry out an abortion, they can be jailed for up to three years.
“The impact of criminalisation, including the harsh penalties in South Australia, is to stigmatise abortion, which is something one in three Australian women will need at some point in their lives”, member of the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition and Flinders University associate professor Dr Catherine Kevin told Red Flag. “There should be no shame attached to this form of health care”, she said, “but the spectre of criminal law sends the message that there is something very wrong with seeking or providing an abortion”.
To access an abortion legally in South Australia, approval must be gained from two doctors on the basis that a serious threat to the health of the woman or foetus is posed by the pregnancy. The procedure must be carried out at a prescribed hospital, and the woman must have lived in South Australia for more than two months. “This undermines women’s autonomy and is a poor use of precious health resources. [The requirement] tells a woman that she is somehow not competent to make a decision about her own reproductive health”, Dr Kevin states. An added complication for women is that the right of doctors not to participate in abortions is protected.
Suzanna, 23, recounted her experience to Buzzfeed earlier this year. “I called the pregnancy hotline and had an appointment with a doctor, and another doctor and then another appointment with a counsellor”, she said. “In each one of those appointments, I had to show my resolve that this was something I wanted to do and it took about two weeks for all of the appointments to be done and to access the procedure ... I had to keep telling my story over and over again and I had to keep justifying my decision to terminate the pregnancy.”
Women from rural areas face even greater barriers. Everywhere else in Australia, women can gain access to the abortion pill RU486 via a phone consultation with a doctor. A package containing the drug, painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine is then mailed to the patient. This is not the case in South Australia, where all abortions, including non-surgical ones, must happen in a prescribed hospital. Two of these facilities have been closed in the last 18 months, resulting in long waits for treatment, and there is only one legally prescribed facility that provides abortion consultation full time.
RU486 consists of two doses taken 24 to 48 hours apart. For many rural women, accessing this treatment involves the financial stress of taking time off work, planning a trip to Adelaide and finding accommodation for at least two days just to take two pills.
“I spent two and a half weeks in torment”, 39-year-old “Janine” told the Advertiser earlier this year. “I knew in my head what I wanted (to do) but I had to wait – it was the worst time of my life”, she says. “There has to be a better way to manage this for women – it was torture.”
There is currently a campaign under way to decriminalise abortion in South Australia. To win real choice for women, there will need to be a fight not only to legalise abortion, but for it also to be accessible and free.
The South Australian Abortion Action Coalition has called a pro-choice rally in Adelaide on Saturday 2 November.