30 June 2023

Calls grow for abortion on demand at Wagga public hospital

| Oliver Jacques
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Women dragging suitcases outside parliament

Women outside NSW Parliament in 2019 dragging suitcases to protest women having to travel long distances to access abortion services. Four years later, this remains the case in Wagga. Photo: Pro-Choice Alliance/Facebook.

NSW Health Minister Ryan Park says his department is currently reviewing pregnancy termination services across all NSW health districts, as calls grow for surgical abortion on demand to be provided at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital.

There is still no public or private facility in Wagga, Griffith or surrounding towns that provides surgical abortion on demand, despite the fact abortion was decriminalised in NSW four years ago. Wagga’s public hospital only provides such services in extreme, emergency and complex cases, such as miscarriages.

Vickie Burkinshaw, president of the not-for-profit Wagga Women’s Health Centre, described the status quo as “outrageous”.

She said her centre is forced to direct Wagga women to Queanbeyan, a three-hour drive, or Albury/Wodonga, 90 minutes away, for surgical abortions.

Those towns further west such as Hay, Hillston and Griffith face an even longer commute.

“At a time when women are at their most vulnerable, they are sent outside their community,” she said. “It’s really cruel … they face the cost of getting there, overnight accommodation and they have to stay there to be monitored.

“Abortion should absolutely be provided in public hospitals, it’s a legal right.”

READ ALSO Why is it still so hard to have an abortion in the Riverina?

Following media reports in March 2023 revealing abortion was almost non-existent in NSW public hospitals, Minister Park announced an audit of pregnancy termination services across all the state’s health districts.

Region asked his office if this audit was complete and whether the Minister supports the notion that abortion should be provided in public hospitals.

His office did not directly answer either question, but provided the following statement.

“NSW Health is currently reviewing abortion services offered by all LHDs [local health districts] across NSW.

“The NSW Government remains committed to removing barriers and improving safe and affordable access to abortion services across NSW.”

Ryan Park

NSW Health and Regional Health Minister Ryan Park in Wagga. Photo: Supplied.

A poll undertaken by Region this week indicated 82 per cent of respondents believe abortion should be offered in Riverina public hospitals.

NSW state Greens MP and Albury GP Amanda Cohn said she was pushing for this to happen.

“NSW is years behind Victoria on access to abortion services.

“It’s the State Government’s responsibility to make abortion more accessible, but there hasn’t been much progress made by the current government.”

Both Ms Burkinshaw and Dr Cohn say women in the Riverina also face barriers to access medical abortions – the use of prescription drugs to end a pregnancy within its first nine weeks.

“The medical community in Wagga is so conservative that these services, even if available, they may not be well advertised,” Dr Cohn said.

READ ALSO Griffith student’s personal story illuminates dire state of rural mental health care

Only a small proportion of GPs in Wagga are credentialed to prescribe medical abortions, and the few that do are often hard to find.

“There is a sort of culture of silence where we live in a community that has a very strong Christian base,” Ms Burkinshaw said.

“We all have access to phones so the first thing we do is google something. When we can’t find it, it’s quite disturbing.”

She said, though, it was encouraging that Wagga Council recently supported a motion to advocate for greater access to abortion services in the town, a cause that’s been championed by councillor Dan Hayes in particular.

Nevertheless, the subject remains off limits for some. A number of agencies and advocacy groups contacted by Region have not responded to our request to provide information on abortion access in the Riverina.

Ms Burkinshaw said she would not be silenced.

“We should be able to speak without fear. We have to keep talking about it until something changes. Something has to change.”

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