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Wairarapa women travel furthest for abortions

Wairarapa had the first-equal highest percentage of patients travelling to other regions for abortion procedures, according to the Ministry of Health’s 2022 abortion report.

The other two areas were Whanganui and the West Coast.

Wairarapa patients also had one of the highest travel times to receive an abortion procedure, taking about two hours to reach the nearest clinic.

“Because not all regions of Aotearoa have local first-trimester abortion services, people living in these regions must travel to another region for services,” the report said.

It said in 2021, all women requiring a first-trimester abortion who lived in Waitemata, Counties Manukau, West Coast, Hutt Valley, Whanganui, and Wairarapa had to travel out of the region for in-person first-trimester abortion services.

The new telehealth service, DECIDE, could change that statistic for many Wairarapa women.

The report said a disproportionate number of people requiring abortion services live in the most socioeconomically deprived areas and were likely to have less, or no, access to a car.

“Being a long distance from an abortion service can prove a significant access barrier for some,” it said.

Former Te Whatu Ora Wairarapa interim director Dale Oliff said DECIDE would help to improve service access in rural areas.

The new service will mean people seeking abortions will be able to receive consultations for an early medical abortion over the phone and medications will be couriered to their homes.

“As part of the telemedicine service, people will be able to immediately talk to a practitioner willing to provide abortion services, removing a key barrier for some people,” Oliff said.

“Access to abortion services for rural women has been difficult and has impacted on timely and equitable care.

“Given that most people have had to travel often long distances for their abortion care it has meant that they will have limited options of [a] preferred type of abortion available.”

When asked about rural women’s barriers to abortion, Rural Women New Zealand said it “does not have a position on access to abortion services”.

Oliff said Te Whatu Ora Wairarapa was working with the larger organisation to fund primary care for early medical abortions.

Author and previous general practitioner Felicity Goodyear-Smith said in 2005, Wairarapa GP Dr Simon Snook launched a sexual health clinic in Masterton that also provided early medical abortions.

“He looked at the number of steps that women had at that point to get one, and it took an average of 28 days after
her decision, which of course might be too late,” she said.

By 2015, Snook set up an 0800 number for abortion consultation, similar to DECIDE.

He told the Times-Age the service was needed because of the delays, said to be potentially harmful, faced by many New Zealand women seeking to end a pregnancy.

Just over a year later, the service closed because of a lack of funding.

Goodyear-Smith said DECIDE had been a game-changer.

She said post-covid, it was much more acceptable to use telehealth services.

“Some doctors are a bit worried about [posting abortion pills] because a parent might open the package.”

Goodyear-Smith said she hoped New Zealand wouldn’t follow the United States of America, where states had begun to ban abortions.

“We’re not as politically polarised … and the other thing is that we now have legislative change. Abortion is now a health issue.”

She said the United States of America never had a law change, and it wasn’t de-criminalised in that way.

Tu Ora Compass Health chief executive Justine Thorpe said primary care clinicians offered free sexual and reproductive health care in Wairarapa for people 19 years of age and under.

Additionally, all people aged 20 and 21 with a community services card could receive free care.

Sexual health and contraceptive consultations were free for the same group of people.

Thorpe said long-acting reversible contraception was free for women aged 15 to 44 who have community services cards or are at high risk of unplanned pregnancy.

Oliff said DECIDE provides information about abortion care for Wairarapa, but medical services are provided by The Women’s Clinic in Palmerston North or Wellington Hospital.

Wairarapa women needing specialist sexual health services would be referred by their doctor to Wellington’s Sexual Health Clinic on Cuba St.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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