COVID-19 could prompt temporary change to SA abortion law

UPDATED | South Australia’s abortion laws could be altered for the first time in decades, with COVID-19 emergency rules potentially allowing women to use telehealth services rather than in-person consultations for medical abortions during the pandemic.

Apr 17, 2020, updated Apr 17, 2020
Mifepristone is a drug used for medical abortions in Australia. Photo: Robin Marty via Flickr

Mifepristone is a drug used for medical abortions in Australia. Photo: Robin Marty via Flickr

The COVID-19 Emergency Response 2020 Act passed State Parliament earlier this month, allowing “various temporary modifications” of South Australian law during the pandemic.

The modifications need to be declared by the State Coordinator – the Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, who has made several directions under the Act not connected to abortion laws – on advice of SA’s chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier.

Health Minister Stephen Wade’s office told InDaily that such temporary changes could include allowing women access to medical abortions through telehealth services.

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General Vickie Chapman also indicated that the measures would be used to allow access to medical abortions through telehealth services.

However, the declaration allowing the move has not yet been made.

SA’s 50-year-old abortion legislation required women seeking a medical abortion to gain approval from two doctors in prescribed facilities, such as a hospital.

“The Minister understands that the existing process and procedures for medical termination of pregnancy involve avoidable travel and increase the risk of transmission of coronavirus,” Wade’s spokesperson said in a statement.

“The Minister has been advised that the COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill 2020 could be used to allow women to use telehealth rather than in-person consultations to meet the requirements of the law in a way which better protects public health.”

Women can still access in-patient surgical abortions as they have been deemed an essential service during COVID-19.

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But groups such as ShineSA argue “access to pregnancy options including abortion may be impacted over the next six months” as the health sector focused on the virus.

They also believe there could be a rise in unintended pregnancies as well as “incidences of domestic violence, sexual violence and sexual coercion” as individuals spend more time at home.

South Australian Abortion Action Coalition member Catherine Kevin said a temporary allowance would mean women could access services more safely.

“Women who are vulnerable are made more vulnerable by COVID-19, and this will respond to the need in the general community, but particularly to the need of women who are most vulnerable because they live outside of the city centre or they’re in domestic violence situations,” she said.

“We’re concerned about all women accessing abortion safely, but we very much have on our radar those acutely vulnerable women and also women who are particularly at risk of contracting COVID-19 as well, so women who might have immunity issues already.”

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman last year tasked the South Australian Law Reform Institute with examining the state’s 50-year-old abortion legislation, which would inform her own bill designed to decriminalise abortion.

A State Government spokesperson said the Attorney-General was still drafting legislation and any temporary COVID-19 measures would not affect policy.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the emergency laws would now allow medical abortions via telehealth. While that is the potential of the laws passed this month – and was the clear implication of comments made to InDaily by several government spokespeople – it will not be allowed unless a declaration is made under the Act. InDaily apologises for the error.

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