Access to abortion care: counting what counts

Senator Penny Wong is not the only thing we can be grateful to South Australia for. As the only Australian state that collects and publishes comprehensive abortion statistics, South Australia has helped the rest of the country understand the rates at which women across Australia access terminations each year.

National reports have drawn upon South Australian data, together with more patchy figures from other states and territories, to suggest that there is an estimated rate of 15 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age across Australia. This rate has been steadily decreasing since 2009, and now seems to have reached a plateau. We also know from the national estimated data that abortions are more likely to be accessed in metropolitan than rural areas, that women aged between 24-29 have the highest rates, and that more women are choosing medical over surgical abortion.

This is vital information which helps us evaluate the level of access that women* have to legal abortion care in Australia. However, there remain many gaps in our knowledge. When it comes to understanding whether migrant or refugee women have equitable access to abortion care that is timely, safe, low cost and culturally appropriate, we don’t know enough. The data doesn’t count how many of the women who access abortion in Australia are born overseas in a mainly non-English speaking country, what their countries of birth are, or what languages they speak.

We know from our Sexual and Reproductive Health Data Report that migrant and refugee women have much later and lower levels of access to reproductive and sexual health services in general in Australia, so we can extrapolate that migrant women are unlikely to  access abortion at equal rates as the general population. It is widely known that women on temporary visas do not have access to Medicare, and due to private health insurance exclusions and waiting periods, will often need to pay for their abortion care in full.

Abortion care is an essential aspect of reproductive healthcare, justice and rights. When access to abortion is limited, inaccessible, costly or culturally unsafe, women’s rights are compromised. As the theme for International Safe Abortion Day was announced this week, it feels very apt: 'Abortion in uncertain times.' As our United States sisters struggle to maintain their Roe Vs Wade court sanctioned rights to access legal abortion, we are reminded how precarious women’s reproductive autonomy can be.

Many people have expressed the hope that Australia is entering a period of positive change for women’s rights, with more women in the parliament with a mandate to represent our views and perspectives, including  reproductive rights. As we embark on this important journey, we must make sure that no woman is left behind, that we are all counted, and that we all count.

*Data only references women and not women and pregnant people.

First published in edition #109 of The WRAP on 30 May 2022.