ACT GPs expand free abortion access

Michelle Wisbey

4/04/2024 2:52:29 PM

General practices have been supported to carry out medical terminations at no cost, with experts now calling on other states to follow suit.

Female doctor speaking to female patient.
Around 40% of all pregnancies in Australia are unintended, and around one third of which are terminated.

Select general practices in the Australian Capital Territory can now offer free medical terminations, under a new expansion of a nation-leading accessible abortions scheme.
Two clinics have been incentivised to provide the service at no cost in a bid to break down financial barriers and stigma, with hopes it will expand into additional general practices in the future.
Watson General Practice and Tuggeranong’s Canberra Family Planning have been selected to participate and will provide medication abortion until nine weeks gestation, as well as no-cost long-acting reversible contraception.
Canberra GP Dr Shiamala Suntharalingam will be participating in the program and told newsGP it creates a much more accessible healthcare system, as well as offering a more discreet service.
‘It means more women have the choice in coming to us in the first place and getting it done locally rather than having to travel elsewhere,’ she said.
‘It means there are more appointments available because I know Marie Stopes International has a long waiting list and sometimes women go beyond the nine weeks so then they have to resort to surgical termination.
‘In general practice, it’s more personable, and it’s a general clinic so it’s all confidential because at a GP clinic we do everything, so nobody knows what your appointment is about.’
The ACT Government partnered with Women’s Health Matters to incentivise the $4.6 million service, which is open to all territory residents, including those without a Medicare card.
Participating GPs can also offer free pathology, imaging, and pharmacy services.
Women’s Health Matters CEO Lauren Anthes said the service is vital to offering women and gender diverse people more choices about their reproductive healthcare.
‘We have heard that it can be difficult to know where to go when you need a medical abortion in Canberra,’ she said.
‘Having a publicly available list of no cost, non-judgmental and pro-choice providers will make it easier for women and gender-diverse people to find the care that they need.’
Thursday’s announcement comes after free medical and surgical abortions were made available in ACT in April last year, but only at one location at MSI Australia.
The organisation will continue to provide no-cost medical abortions up to nine weeks, as well as surgical abortions up to 16 weeks gestation.
Monash University General Practice Chair Professor Danielle Mazza told newsGP the ACT is leading the way with the service and is urging the rest of Australia to follow.
However, she emphasises an expanded rollout would need to be accompanied by a boost to training and education options for GPs.
‘We need to really focus on training the workforce … we need to support GPs to train in abortion and women’s health more broadly so women can feel confident that when they approach their GP, those services are being delivered,’ Professor Mazza said.
‘We do teach medical students about it, but it really belongs in the GP training program, because if they don’t have the example then how are they going to learn that it’s part of normal practice?
‘We need the culture in general practice to change so that it’s seen as an essential and integral part of general practice service delivery.’
A 2020 study from women’s healthcare company, Organon found 40% of all pregnancies in Australia are unintended, and around one third of which are terminated.
The ACT’s announcement is the latest in a raft of changes expanding GPs’ termination treatment options.
Last year, the Therapeutic Goods Administration lifted several restrictions around prescribing mifepristone and misoprostol (MS-2 Step) for medical terminations, as well as no longer requiring GPs to undertake mandatory training and registration to prescribe the medication.
Meanwhile, historic new laws recently came into effect in Western Australia that decriminalised abortion and halved the number of health practitioners required to be involved.
And although true access to terminations for all is a long way off, Dr Suntharalingam said abortion stigma is slowly starting to lift as women stand up for their rights to make informed health decisions.
‘It is a difficult situation for a woman to make this choice, and I think most women who come to me haven’t had any issues, so maybe it is more accepted in the community,’ she said.
‘If more states can provide this service without the financial costs and barriers, and in general practice, then I think it’s better for women in general.’
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