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This Is What It's Like To Be The Only Doctor Who Performs Abortions In A Regional Area

... In a state where abortion remains in the criminal code.

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"I am in a privileged position of having a skill set that allows me to actually step up and do something about something I really care about," Grace* told BuzzFeed News.

"I believe it is a basic human right that women should be able to access abortion and contraceptive services."

Grace works at Townsville's Marie Stopes International clinic, which can only afford to open three days a month.

"This practice has been running at a loss for a few years, but we've stayed open because what we do is so important," she said.

"The population of Townsville is around 230,000, and 117,000 of those people are women. The median age is 34. Do the math."

Last year the clinic almost shut down, as did its sister clinic in Rockhampton, Queensland, however Marie Stopes International is in talks with the state government about funding.

It is the only termination service for women with unwanted pregnancies who live in the hundreds of communities dotted across the hundreds of thousands of square kilometres covering rural, regional and remote northern Queensland.

"There are no services in Cairns at the moment and so there is only Rockhampton and us and then Brisbane," she said.

Half of Grace's patients travelled a minimum of two hours to see her and almost a fifth had travelled for more than eight hours, she said.

"It can be an eight hour drive to get to a regional centre, and the cost is prohibitive for a lot of women. Depending on their gestation it is about $800 [on average] just for the procedure."

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Grace recently saw a patient who had been assessed in Cairns, where abortion services have been closed.

"She was of an Indigenous background and already had seven children," she said.

Charities raised funds for the woman to fly to see Grace in Townsville for a surgical termination.

"We found she was at 17 weeks, which was two weeks ahead of the level of service we can provide, and so the next step was to try and send her to the Gold Coast," Grace said.

"She had seven children who were in the care of someone else, and she's had to find the funding to get to Townsville and to pay for the termination, and then we've told her she has to go to the Gold Coast. So she just said, 'I guess I'm having another baby then'."

Abortion remains in the state's criminal code and is only lawful to “prevent serious danger to the woman’s physical or mental health”.

Two bills to decriminalise abortion in Queensland were withdrawn last week by independent Cairns MP Rob Pyne when it became clear they would not pass parliament.

"The fact that [abortion] is a criminal act is despicable," Grace said. "But I feel that if that is the framework I have to work in, then I will do so."

Decriminalisation, she said, would "send a message" that women have the right to have "control over their own bodies and fertility". It would also mean public health institutions would no longer be able to rely so heavily on private clinics to provide abortions.

Some of Grace's patients had been turned away from hospitals and refused a termination.

"In regional centres, hospitals run their departments as mini-fiefdoms, so they can do what they like, but at the end of the day abortion is criminal and they're not going to put their licences on the line," she said.

"The local hospital in Townsville is prepared to do an abortion after 20 weeks only for fetal anomalies; for any other reason the woman would have to fly [more than 1,400km] to the Gold Coast."

After years of seeing patients in abusive relationships, Grace believes the "easiest way to control a woman" is to restrict her access to contraception.

"There are a lot of women whose partners have forbidden them from using contraception, so they won't get [a contraceptive implant] in case he sees it, or they will ask for an [intrauterine device] but ask for the strings to be cut really short so there is no way that he can see it during sex," she said.

Grace is not "pro-termination" but "pro-choice".

"It is not nice what I do, and no-one talks about it over the dinner table; in fact, half the people I know don't know what I do because I don't talk about it."

As a Christian she doesn't "have a problem dealing directly with my God in relation to what I do, because I believe that every child that comes into the world should be wanted and cared for and loved".

Pro-choice counselling service Children by Choice raised almost $20,000 from 2013 to 2016 for women in Townsville who needed help paying for their abortions.

Of the women who required financial assistance, 42% had experienced domestic and/or sexual violence.

Townsville Women's Centre manager Cathy Crawford sees "women experiencing or escaping violence every day", some of whom need assistance to access an abortion.

"It could be as a result of sexual assault, or a domestic violence situation, or just a woman who can't have a child at this point in time and is under-resourced," Crawford told BuzzFeed News.

Crawford said her overworked counsellors were spending valuable time trying to finance terminations.

"Women will say, 'If I don't pay rent for two weeks I can have a termination', but they'd be homeless in two weeks."

She said Queensland hospitals were "more likely to take a woman who is very young, or [in a] severe domestic violence or sexual assault case."

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

Gina Rushton is a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Gina Rushton at gina.rushton@buzzfeed.com.

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