The Greens have established a new Senate inquiry to look at how easy or hard it is for people to access abortion services and contraception in Australia — particularly those living in regional and remote areas.
- The Greens say the government could do more to cover out-of-pocket expenses
- The inquiry will also look at access to sexual and reproductive healthcare more broadly
- Concerns have been raised about the spread of unofficial contraception advice on TikTok
The Senate voted in favor of Greens spokesperson on women Larissa Waters’ motion on Wednesday afternoon to create the inquiry, with a report due back by the end of March 2023.
She said the idea for the inquiry came in the wake of Roe v Wade being overturned in the United States.
“Of course the legal system’s different but it was a question of access … and that’s given us cause to reflect on Australian women’s ability to access reproductive healthcare and it’s not great,” she said.
“Particularly in regional and rural areas, it costs a bomb and often you’ve got to travel hundreds of kilometers to get basic health care.”
Senator Waters said reimbursing women for out-of-pocket costs was one change the federal government could make.
“How can [the government] help coordinate and ensure that the states are essentially harmonizing so that no matter where you live you get the same quality of healthcare,” she said.
“Some of the levers that the federal government could be pulling is making sure that public hospitals provide medical abortions and surgical abortions, there’s potential funding levers that they could say unless you’re providing this basic healthcare service you’re not going to get federal dollars.”
Senator Waters said the inquiry, announced on international safe abortion day, would also be tasked with looking more broadly at how to increase access to other reproductive healthcare like contraception.
Four in 10 unintended pregnancies, report finds
The move to set up the inquiry comes on the same day a report into the impacts of unintended pregnancies was released and delivered to parliament.
The report, commissioned by global healthcare company Organon which makes a number of contraceptives, found 40 percent of pregnancies were unintended.
Of the women who experienced unintended pregnancies, 31 percent of terminated the pregnancy.
Professor Danielle Mazza from the Center of Research Excellence in Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health in Primary Care, said there were a number of issues around abortion access in regional Australia.
They include the time-sensitive nature of eligibility for a medical abortion, which involves taking prescription medication, and a lack of trained GPs.
“It still remains a fact that many rural and regional areas across Australia have no GPs that are providing this service,” she said.
Professor Mazza said she would welcome any process that shed a light on access issues and provided real-world policy solutions.
“So knowing that it’s important to focus on providing training and support for practitioners, increasing women’s knowledge and understanding of services available and an examination of the costs incurred by women and potential policy solutions to that,” she said.
The report also estimated that the cost of unintended pregnancies in 2020 was $7.2 billion, with most of the cost — 56 per cent — borne by women, 37 per cent by the government, 3 per cent by employers and 5 per cent by out-of -home carers.
Direct costs included out-of-pocket expenses and government subsidies through Medicare and hospital funding, while indirect costs included childcare subsidies, childcare fees, parental leave payments and lost wages.
Professor Mazza said the findings highlighted the need to make sure women know about and have access to contraception that was right for them.
Concerns about TikTok videos
Both Professor Mazza and Senator Waters urged people not to take advice from people on TikTok and other social media sites about what contraception to use, or to stay away from.
There are thousands of videos and posts on both TikTok and Instagram from people spruiking the benefits of non-hormonal contraception or “natural birth control”.
Professor Mazza said it was crucial that women found a contraceptive option that worked for them, but that it was frustrating to see people taking advice from strangers that may not be evidence-based.
“Like many things going on around the world at the moment, people are not listening to the evidence or able to access information based on science,” she said.
“I think when we’re talking about health issues, women’s sexual and reproductive health in particular, we need to consider the information that’s given by health professionals is likely to be more evidence-based than what’s found on TikTok by social influences and the two don’t have necessarily equal truth.”
Senator Waters said access to information about contraception would form part of the inquiry.
“It would be very concerning if people are getting their information about healthcare from TikTok … let’s make sure that this inquiry can find what are the barriers to people getting the information they need that is medically based so they can make the best choices for themselves, ” she said.