Is it a women’s choice?

It is New Zealand’s fifth-largest city, yet Tauranga is the only one where women are deprived of easy access to safe, surgical abortion services.

Now, abortion rights proponents are calling for services to be re-established at Tauranga Hospital, which stopped preforming abortions in the early 2000s.

“Abortions are a very common medical/surgical procedure,” says Abortion Rights advocate Alison McCulloch, yet women in Tauranga seeking a termination have to travel 120 kilometres to Thames in one direction, or 63km to Rotorua in the other.

“It’s very harmful to women to have to bear the shame and stigma that often comes with an abortion,” says Alison.

“I think easier access to safe abortion care is important, and this service should be available to women in their home area.”

Major cities such as Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton all provide a surgical abortion service. Smaller cities than Tauranga, like Napier/Hastings and Dunedin, also offer the service.

Tauranga Hospital previously offered surgical abortion services, however medical, surgical and support staff were free to decline work in such a sensitive area if they wished, and a lack of capacity saw authorities move the procedures elsewhere.

Bay of Plenty District Health Board planning and funding senior portfolio manager, Mike Agnew, says the decision to move the service from Tauranga Hospital was made by the Health Funding Authority, prior to the creation of District Health Boards.

He says HFA wanted to provide abortion services on a regional basis for the five Midland DHBs: Bay of Plenty, Lakes, Tairawhiti, Taranaki, and Waikato. At the time, these regional services were delivered out of Tokoroa and Thames Hospitals.

“The BOPDHB have recently collaborated with Lakes DHB to develop a sub-regional - Lakes and Bay of Plenty - surgical termination service, after receiving notice that services provided by Waikato DHB in Tokoroa were going to cease,” says Mike.

He says the BOPDHB have no plans to make surgical abortions available in Tauranga in the near future.

Tauranga Family Planning Clinic has stepped in to fill the void, providing medical abortions for women who are less than nine weeks pregnant. Over the course of two days, women are given two lots of drugs before being told to return home to miscarry.

“It’s a great start, but I don’t think it’s enough,” says Alison. “There are many reasons women might need or choose a surgical abortion rather than medical.

“I guess the most obvious is that they might be more than nine weeks pregnant.”

The Family Planning medical abortion service is currently offered just one day per week, because of the existing pressure of their workloads.

Marlene Ware, a social worker for Tauranga Hospital from 1985-2005 when terminations were available, dealt with many women confronted with the trauma of an unexpected pregnancy.

It was her job to inform the women of their options, from termination and adoption or foster care to keeping the baby. Offering emotional support was also a big part of her job description, and she witnessed first-hand the added pressure put on pregnant women who had to travel for surgical abortion services.

Organising time off work, making arrangements for other children and having someone to drive them there and back were all common issues – and that was before they dealt with the emotional strain.

What Tauranga couldn’t provide women with unwanted pregnancies, Thames could.

“There was capacity, medical staff who were supportive, and operating surgeons who were willing to provide that service,” says Marlene.

“Normally, a woman would have counselling beforehand, which was offered at Tauranga Hospital, and probably helped women make a decision without feeling rushed.”

However, going to Thames or Rotorua means the whole process is condensed into just one day.

“It is difficult for that woman to withdraw from a process that seems well underway.”

Statistics show a sharp increase in induced abortions last year - up 462 on the previous year. StatsNZ tells us that 13,285 induced abortions were performed on women aged 15-44 years by hospitals or licensed abortion clinics.

But the data is confusing. Is it a spike, or an indication of things to come?

“The rate has been falling for quite a number of years, so it’s hard to tell if it’s headed on an upward trend, or stabilising,” says Alison.

The criteria for abortions is much debated. They are legal when a pregnant woman faces a physical or mental health danger to her life. They are also legal if there is a risk of the foetus being handicapped.

If the abortion does not fit these criterion, it is a crime under the Crimes Act. The Minister of Justice has signalled an intention to change this to a health issue rather than a crimes issue.

Right to Life also took the government Abortion Supervisory Committee to court for a judicial review of the granting of an abortion licence to the NZ Family Planning association, to operate an abortion clinic in Tauranga.

*The Weekend Sun asked several Right to Life advocates their opinion. At the time of going to print, they have not responded to our questions regarding this issue.