Four years after abortion was decriminalised in NSW, women across the Riverina are still denied access to pregnancy termination services.
Region understands there is still no public or private facility in Wagga, Griffith or any surrounding town that provides surgical abortions.
This means a woman in Hillston, for instance, faces a four-and-a-half-hour drive to the closest service – in Wodonga in Victoria.
Only a small proportion of Riverina GPs are credentialed to prescribe medical abortions – the use of prescription drugs to end a pregnancy within its first nine weeks.
Pro-choice advocates claim a conservative local medical establishment and government inaction are reasons why Riverina women still struggle to access a now fully legal service widely available in Sydney.
It was in September 2019 that NSW Parliament passed a bill that was supposed to ensure women in NSW would “have access to safe and lawful terminations without the threat of criminal convictions”.
Nine months later, the Murrumbidgee Local Health District (MLHD) – the NSW Government bureaucracy responsible for public health in the Riverina – said it established a “working party” to “improve affordable and timely access to pregnancy termination” in step with the new law.
MLHD did not answer a question from Region on what progress this working party has made over the past three years. MLHD also did not answer our question on whether any of its 33 hospitals provide surgical abortions, nor where the closest place Riverina women need to travel to is to access such a service.
Other sources have told Region that no public or private facility within the MLHD’s 125,000 square km footprint provides surgical abortions on demand, with Wagga’s public hospital only doing so in emergency situations.
Labor-aligned Wagga councillor Dan Hayes says the current situation is unacceptable.
“There is a clear expectation from the community that abortion services are available in Wagga as it is a legal health service,” he said. “While I recognise there has been an increase in medical abortion prescribers, the need for that to increase further still exists. Regardless, there remains a gap for surgical abortions.
“I welcome the NSW Health Minister’s calls for pathways for surgical abortion services to be created after years of delays. And I’m glad Wagga Council has included advocating for these services on the recent advocacy plan.”
Dr Amanda Cohn, an Albury GP and NSW Greens MP who has campaigned for greater abortion access in regional areas, suggested another barrier to women’s access to pregnancy termination.
“The medical community in Wagga is so conservative that these services, even if available, they may not be well advertised. I’m aware of GPs in Wagga who prescribe medical abortions but don’t want to advertise their services.”
Cr Hayes says he has been told by medical professionals that Wagga’s [Catholic] Calvary hospital effectively “blacklists” doctors who perform abortions outside its private facility by reducing their theatre time.
Calvary Riverina says this isn’t true, with the claim rejected by Calvary Chief Medical Advisor, Dr Tracey Tay.
The Wagga councillor says this mystery needs to be solved.
“The fact that surgical abortions in Wagga have been non-existent and continue to be is deeply disappointing and concerning,” Cr Hayes said. “Medical professionals have raised concerns with me and others for years about what impact providing these services will have on their career in Wagga. If no blacklist exists as claimed by some, it remains extremely odd that these services have never been available in Wagga and continue not be available today. And it is very strange indeed that no one can explain why.”
Health agencies contacted by Region were reluctant to comment on the provision of abortion services in the Riverina.
Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network (MPHN) – the Federal Government body that oversees GP services – did not answer our question on how many Wagga and Griffith GP clinics are credentialed to prescribe medical abortions.
The state-run MLHD also refused to answer our questions on abortion access, instead providing a generic statement on obtaining pregnancy advice.
Family Planning Australia (FPA), a government funded not-for-profit provider of reproductive and sexual health services, did not answer our questions on where in the Riverina a woman could access abortion services.
However, FPA noted medical abortion is available in NSW through FPA’s medicare-rebated telehealth service, which expires in December 2023. Women wanting general information about their pregnancy choices can call the FPA Pregnancy Choices Helpline (1800 008 463) or Talkline (1300 658 886).