“Rife With Barriers”: Abortion Accessibility in ACT Protest IWD 2023
By Rowey Worner Butcher
Additional Reporting by Eleanor Ellis
Photography by Patrick Guthridge
Content Warning: Abortion, medical issues, mental health, physical health, religious discrimination, SASH.
“Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide!”
International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023 saw approximately 100 students gather in Kambri to call for greater access to abortions in the ACT. Currently, Canberra Hospital in Garran is the only public hospital offering abortion services if they are under 16 weeks pregnant, forcing many to travel interstate.
Attendees heard speeches from the organisers as well as a member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
Founded in 2004, Equal Love Canberra began as a means to lobby for marriage equality. In 2023, Equal Love continues to run or support other demonstrations which are “crucial to putting politicians under pressure to change the law… and to winning more support amongst the broader community for the campaign”.
Maya Johnson and Beatrice Tucker, both members of ANUSA and the Women’s Department, claimed that access to abortion in the ACT is “rife with barriers”. They also called upon the ACT Government to focus on making abortion more accessible, rather than just economically viable.
From July 2019 the Health (Improving Abortion Access) Amendment Act 2018 allowed General Practitioners in the territory to prescribe the medication required to induce an abortion.
Speaking to Observer, Equal Love’s Carter Chryse says that “part of the reason why you can’t get an abortion after 16 weeks in the ACT… is because they can be more profitable elsewhere.”
Chryse stated this in reference to the fact that the ACT only has three medical practices who bulk bill. The ANU Medical Centre is one of these practices.
While abortions have been decriminalised in the ACT since 2002, Calvary Hospital can deny abortions on religious grounds due to its status as a publicly funded hospital because of a religious exemption included in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.
This means that the only public hospital offering abortion services is Canberra Hospital. Many of the speakers at Wednesday’s rally criticised this as an issue of accessibility for those living in Canberra’s North.
ANU Women’s Officer Phoebe Denham cited a lack of “adequate public transport” as posing a barrier to those who do not live in close proximity to services. This sentiment was echoed by Shanae Williamson of the NTEU who said that the ACT Government needed to focus on making abortion “not merely legal, but accessible too.”
Another primary concern discussed was the lack of services in the ACT for abortions required over a 16 week gestational limit. Due to a lack of specialists in the ACT, those seeking abortions over 16 weeks are forced to travel interstate.
However, an article by the Sydney Morning Herald found that women in NSW were being turned away from access to abortion in public institutions despite it being decriminalised in 2020. This is largely due to a lack of public hospitals offering the service, the article claims.
In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade the ACT Government made a press release promising “free medical and surgical abortions up to 16 weeks.”
“But it didn’t happen,” Chryse stated in response to the press release.“They announced it after the protest, but it’s coming into effect in July,” they added.
Tucker and Johnson claim that the ACT Government’s emphasis on the cost of abortions “removes the humanity and daily context from our bodies”.
Denham says that issues of access to abortion have particular implications for ANU students. She states that many students “struggle with having to travel long distances with limited public transport offerings when seeking specialised healthcare.”
Currently, students needing emergency medical services on the ANU campus will be taken to Calvary Hospital due to its proximity to campus.
“Students living in accommodation with shared bathrooms may have to find alternative accommodation when undergoing abortions.” she added. Currently, ANU students have access to free medical services on campus, and are able to seek consultation and medical treatment at those services.
The diversification of GPs on the ANU campus is a matter which Denham says the Women’s Department have advocated for prior. In reference to the current all-male body of GPs at ANU, Denham says it is essential “to have diverse General Practitioners available on campus given the diversity of the student population… [which] would improve the experience of students seeking medical assistance”.
A spokesperson from ANU stated “the University also seeks to expand its base of GPs and regularly works with local health networks to provide the most comprehensive and appropriate care to our students and campus community.”
They further advised that in the meantime students seeking greater awareness of “health and sexual matters” are able to make an appointment with the campus’ nurse Practitioner through the ANU Medical Centre.
Support Services & Contacts
NTEU ANU Division: 02 6125 2043,[email protected]
ANU Medical Centre: +61 2 6125 2211
ANU Counselling: 02 6125 2442
ANU 24/7 Wellbeing & Support: 24/7 1300 050 327 or 0
488 884 170
ANU Security: 02 6125 5549
Graphics by Will Novak
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