Canberra women are travelling to Queanbeyan to access medical abortion drugs through the mail, a telephone provider of the drugs says.
Founded last year, the Tabbot Foundation provides medical abortions to women across Australia through a telephone consultation service. After years of controversy, abortion drugs mifepristone (RU486) and misoprostol became available legally in Australia in 2006.
It was that year, after health minister Tony Abbott had refused to lift a ban over RU486, when MPs voted to strip him of his power over the pill.
Tanya Plibersek put RU486 on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme in 2013, though controversy around its safety has not entirely disappeared.
And although abortion is not a crime in the ACT, laws penalise people who carry out an abortion unless in a government-approved clinic.
To avoid breaking ACT law, the foundation sends the abortion drugs to Queanbeyan, NSW, for women to pick-up and take before returning home.
The situation in the ACT goes to the cost and availability of abortion.
Reproductive Choice Australia says the foundation may more than halve the exorbitant costs many women face for abortion, as well as allowing those in regional areas to receive treatment previously denied to them.
Children by Choice, a Brisbane-based not-for-profit, says about 64 per cent of women who reach out to them say the cost of an abortion is a barrier to access.
The Tabbot Foundation assesses women over the phone and arranges for an ultrasound before mailing abortion drugs, painkillers and antibiotics to the woman, providing an on-call and follow-up service, for $250.
In the ACT, the sole approved clinic for abortions both medical and surgical is Dr Marie in Civic. The clinic did not respond to inquiries about the cost of its services, but generally an abortion – depending on gestation, location and method – costs between $300 and $800.
“When Tanya Plibersek put this on the PBS, she thought, this is going to reduce the cost and make it affordable. But she was wrong for the ACT, in fact she was wrong for the whole of Australia,” the Tabbot Foundation’s medical director Paul Hyland said.
Dr Hyland has criticised the laws that force him to supply medical abortions to Canberra women via NSW, and the apparent contradiction with recent anti-protest zones around abortion clinics.
“Our business model avoids harassment, intimidation and obstruction, the very [reason] laws were put in place for zonal restriction in the ACT.”
He is lobbying for legislative change in the ACT that would allow his foundation to treat women in their own home.
The foundation, which Dr Hyland says he intends to convert into a registered charity, supplies drugs for about 30 medical abortions a week.
About 80,000 women in Australia each year have an abortion.
President of the ACT branch of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Robson, said he fully supported the right of women to access safe and effective methods of abortion.
Professor Robson, a gynaecologist, said medical abortions were both safe and effective, but serious complications were always a possibility. He said the treating doctors had an ongoing duty of care to the women to whom they provided abortions.
But he said how abortion was regulated in each state was a legislative question for broader community discussion, not the medical profession.
Health Minister Simon Corbell said while the government was committed to enabling women to make an informed decision and access abortion, the legislation did not differentiate between surgical and medical abortions.
He has asked ACT Health for advice on the need for legislative change.