During the nearly 20 years he’s lived in Wairarapa, Dr Simon Snook has been behind transformative progress in improving nationwide abortion services, and these tireless efforts are being recognised by his being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Pioneering an avenue of healthcare historically riddled with accessibility barriers, Snook’s work includes developing a service allowing early medical abortion at home that began in Wairarapa and Tairawhiti in 2005 before being adopted nationwide.
He’s published work about abortion access in remote communities, improved rural access to the service, and has pioneered the delivery of healthcare via telemedicine.
On receiving the news of his Order of Merit, Snook said he was overjoyed, while being quick to note that all his colleagues and health professionals working in his field should also be acknowledged.
“I’m very grateful and honoured to receive it but equally, I don’t think I should be singled out as the only person to be making a difference in this arena.”
Be that as it may, Snook’s vast contributions to New Zealand’s healthcare appear even more extraordinary considering he only moved from the UK to Wellington in the early 2000s.
“I had a couple of weekend trips over the hill to Wairarapa and just fell in love with the place,” Snook said, “so I moved over here in 2004, and I’ve been here ever since.”
When he arrived in New Zealand, there were “unnecessary legalities” preventing access to abortion, even though it was technically legal.
“At the time, essentially the only thing really being offered was a surgical procedure,” Snook explained.
“They were just beginning to do medical abortion, but it was done in a way where you would have to go to Wellington Hospital, take all of your medications, and stay there until you miscarried.
“In a way that rids the benefits of medical abortion, which can be something that’s owned fully by the person going through it, and they can be at home in their environment and feel supported and safe there.”
Not satisfied with how this healthcare service was offered, Snook saw people were also travelling at great lengths to access care.
He said this drawn-out process was compounded by administrative legalities due to the requirement of a GP referral.
“What really frustrated me was the interpretation of the law at the time,” Snook said.
“Firstly, there was a delay because you had to get an appointment with someone to refer you.
“Secondly there was the issue of confidentiality, with people not wanting their family GP to know they were going through this process.”
Research at the time showed it took, on average, one month between a person deciding they wanted an abortion and actually being able to access the service.
Snook said this spurred his motivation at the time to improve the quality of care.
He developed a training programme for clinicians to deliver point-of-care ultrasounds for early pregnancy assessment within the abortion clinic.
Reflecting, he said there has been a vast improvement in accessibility over the past 20 years.
“The law change in 2020 was huge, people didn’t need to justify their choices,” Snook said.
“There are no longer necessary grounds for abortion. If a person doesn’t want to be pregnant, then that’s all they need to say to give a reason, which I think is fantastic.”
Snook believes there is still a need for improved healthcare access for Māori and other ethnic groups, and for improved funding routes.
When considering the traditionally divisive rhetoric surrounding abortion services, Snook mentioned that he had seen protestors when working in Wellington and had been the recipient of some angry emails and letters over the years.
However, he said the degree of this sentiment wasn’t significant, and he has witnessed a generational shift of attitudes over his time working in healthcare.
“I think now the majority of people are supportive and just accept that it’s a part of healthcare,” Snook said.
“You’re still going to have some people who don’t support it, but compared to working somewhere like the United States, I’d say here it’s a healthy debate rather than aggressive.”