Australia has re-elected a government that went to the campaign with no major sexual and reproductive healthcare funding promises, and whose leader refuses to talk about abortion because it isn’t an issue he thinks “unites Australians”.
The Federal Labor party had promised to support the decriminalisation of abortion in jurisdictions where it is still a crime, make long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) affordable and accessible, increase the number of GPs who can prescribe abortion drug RU486 and establish a national hotline linking women to “safe, credentialed providers of termination services”.
Most significantly, the party had pledged to “end the patchwork of [abortion] service provision in Australia” by expecting, for the first time, termination services to be provided in public hospital under Commonwealth-state hospital funding agreements.
The government's 59-page national women's health strategy mentions Australia's abortion access issues briefly twice, where it lists "equitable access to pregnancy termination services" as a "key measure of success" for maternal, sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
So where does the election result leave Australia when it comes to the fight for reproductive rights?
Reproductive Choice Australia president Jenny Ejlak said she was disappointed she won’t get to see Labor’s national sexual and reproductive health strategy implemented.
“The policy positions the ALP adopted prior to the election were unprecedented,” Ejlak told BuzzFeed News. “I'm quite sure the word "abortion" did not appear in any official policy document of Labor or the Coalition prior to this.
"[Labor’s promise] was part of a continuum of care that included increasing access to contraception, improved screening and treatment options for female reproductive diseases such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, addressing high rates of sexually transmissible infections, and taking national leadership on addressing the current inequitable patchwork access to abortion."
Tasmanian women will feel this disappointment most, Ejlak said.
Labor had promised a $1 million “Tasmanian Reproductive Health Hub”, announced in February last year after the closure of the main provider of surgical abortion in the state for the past 17 years, the Specialist Gynaecology Centre in Hobart, sparked a national conversation about barriers to accessing the procedure.
"For almost 18 months they have been abandoned by their state government and forced to travel interstate to access abortion care service,” Ejlak said.
"Tasmania has historically lurched from access crisis to access crisis with a series of standalone clinics always staffed by fly-in, fly-out doctors."
She predicts the Senate will “cause headaches over the next three years” as there are “several extreme conservatives” who are likely to attack any proposal for Medicare rebates for abortion.
“Thankfully there were a fair few Labor and Greens candidates elected and we will be counting on them to defend attacks against Medicare, or other restrictions on abortion,” she said.
Sinead Canning is the campaign manager for the NSW Pro-Choice Alliance, a group of 60 peak legal, health and community organisations rallying together to decriminalise abortion in New South Wales.
"Labor's reproductive and sexual health strategy was the first of its kind proposed,” Canning told BuzzFeed News.
"We'd urge the re-elected Coalition government to consider adopting the strategy as a whole."
Canning said it is "crucial" that the government implement a coherent policy stance on women’s reproductive and sexual health as part of its National Women’s Health Strategy.
"We can’t wait any longer," she said.
"Despite the prime minister's comments to the contrary, abortion is not a divisive issue and we know that the vast majority of Australians increasingly support a woman’s right to choose."
Currently, only South Australia has routine public provision of surgical abortion, but elsewhere in Australia the procedure usually takes place at a private provider, to which a woman has paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars at short notice. This doesn’t account for the cost of travel, childcare and accommodation for women in regional, rural and remote locations where services are rare.
Associate professor at Flinders University Catherine Kevin is the spokeswoman for the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition, which is fighting to decriminalise abortion in the state.
“Here in South Australia we have enjoyed really excellent public provision for a really long time but we need reform to improve access to early medical abortions [RU486] for South Australian women,” Kevin told BuzzFeed News.
One of the main reasons there is a push to decriminalise abortion in the state is because under the current law the drugs can only be taken in a “prescribed” hospital which means women in regional areas need to travel to Adelaide to take two pills.
Labor’s promises to both support decriminalisation and to increase access to RU486 would have helped women across the state.
“We need to change the law to make that accessible for women who live far away from hospitals,” Kevin said.
Incentivising the provision of early medical abortions for GPs would be key.
"If the [Therapeutic Goods Administration] could treat mifepristone [RU486] as any other drug and if the government could create a Medicare item number for medical terminations that would be excellent," Kevin said.
"I think if the federal government is saying 'this is part of healthcare for women' then that puts more pressure on the states to treat it in the same way."
Jamal Hakim is the acting chief executive of Marie Stopes Australia, the nation's largest abortion provider. She said Labor's national approach to sexual and reproductive health was encouraging but that this should be a bipartisan issue.
"The reality is that most Australians are supportive of better abortion access," Hakim told BuzzFeed News.
Hakim noted the government's national women's health strategy broadly aims to work towards universal access for sexual and reproductive health including access to LARC and termination of pregnancy services.
"We are hopeful that the strategy, developed with some of the leading women’s health specialists and organisations in a bipartisan way, is a sign that the Morrison government will engage with the issue of abortion access."
BuzzFeed News contacted both the minister for health and the department of health for comment but received no response.