Right now in the Northern Territory, if a woman wants to terminate a pregnancy she has one choice: a surgical abortion in a hospital. In an area that's as sparsely populated as the NT—just over 200,000 people across more than a million square kilometres—this often means long trips to Darwin or Alice Springs.
It also means long waits. Robyn Wardle, CEO of the Family Planning Welfare Association Northern Territory, says the list to get an abortion in the NT is up to six weeks long.
Some Territory politicians want this to change, and are arguing for the introduction of the medical abortion drug RU486, which has been available elsewhere in Australia since 2006. Women in the US have had the drug since 2000, and it has been in Europe for years before that. But when amendments to the Medical Services Act were debated in state parliament on April 20, it became clear opposition is strong.
Independent member Gerry Wood was one the most vocal dissenters, redirecting the debate from the availability of RU486 to the ethics of abortion. He is also calling for an exhaustive inquiry into whether RU486 could be safe for women in the territory.
"It is not a medicine. That is a euphemism; medicines make you well and pregnancy is not a sickness," Mr Wood said. "It is a drug that will give women a choice on the method used to destroy an unborn human life. So we will debate abortion, and we will debate about human life."
The minister went on to describe abortion as a fashion, stirred on by "glossy magazines" and "midday TV shows." He even quoted literature: "GK Chesterton, who is a great English writer and philosopher, once wrote: Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions."
When VICE called Minister Wood he was upfront about his stance on abortion—"I believe it is wrong"—but initially framed his opposition to the bill as concern for women's health. If RU486 becomes available, Wood wants women to get the okay from two separate doctors before the drug can be prescribed. He also believes women should be required to stay within two hours of a hospital for two weeks after taking RU486. There are only five public hospitals in the Territory.
In Victoria, women can get RU486 over the phone, without ever having to see a doctor face-to-face. And telemedicine is becoming more popular in the NT too, as a way to overcome the region's critical doctor shortage. But Mr Wood seems resolute that medical abortion isn't safe. "The legal opinion I have is that the amendments the member for Goyder is proposing could end up with someone in the coroner's court," he told VICE. RU486 has only been associated with one death in Australia.
As the conversation continued, Wood's criticism of the bill broadened to include his concerns that it would force doctors who object to abortion to provide RU486, restrict the freedoms of protesters outside of abortion clinics, and how medical abortion would affect Indigenous women.
"I do think there's an issue of cultural differences between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people... some of these issues are quite foreign to them," he told VICE. "My wife is Aboriginal, and abortion wouldn't have existed in the old days. It's not in the language. It's something that's come from Western society into Aboriginal society."
This undercurrent of condescension towards the NT's sizeable Indigenous population concerned Robyn Wardle during Wednesday's parliamentary debate. Both from Minister Wood and former Palmer Party member Larisa Lee—who represents Arnhem Land.
Minister Lee explained that women in Arnhem were afraid of RU486: "They are horrified by the fact their kids, or anybody in a community, has to take a pill and could go through up to three weeks in agony and get to see this baby come out and hold it, whether it is in the toilet or wherever. That is the most terrifying part," she told the parliament. But current medical research suggests this would be the most extreme experience of the drug.
"It was very embarrassing as a Territorian to hear my members of parliament, no matter what party they are from, say such misinformation," Wardle told VICE. "I felt embarrassed for Indigenous people... it was almost as though [MP Lee] was saying that they didn't have the brains, the intelligence to understand RU486... I think an Indigenous woman today can make that decision for herself."
"[RU486] is not a medicine. That is a euphemism; medicines make you well and pregnancy is not a sickness..."
The issue here is largely one of choice. Right now, the choices for women in the Territory are severely restricted. Those with the money often choose to travel to another state to access abortion services. "I think they need a choice," Wardle says. "They need the same choice that every other woman in Australia has and the rest of the world."
But politicians with very little knowledge of the medical science around abortion creating laws that act as barriers to women accessing reproductive services isn't limited to the Northern Territory. It's a common tactic in the US, where all but 10 of Texas' abortion clinics had to close after the introduction of new restrictive regulations, stipulating everything from how wide the hallways are to how big the janitor's closet needs to be.
"There's this undercurrent to constantly delay this bill, to make it go away, but this issue won't go away," Wardle says. "The job of parliament is to update legislation that's 30 years old. This is not about whether or not we should allow abortion, which is what Mr Wood keeps bringing up."
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