Experts in the Media

Liz Wilkes – The Guardian

Midwife and Managing Director of My Midwives

Labor’s refusal to tie public hospital funding to full reproductive care condemned as ‘outrageous’.

Women forced to ‘shop around’ for abortion care due to Catholic public hospitals’ refusal to provide terminations.

Despite harrowing stories from women about having to “shop around” for abortion care even when their pregnancies are unviable, the federal government will not make providing abortion services a condition tied to millions of dollars in funding it allocates to major public hospitals.

An investigation by Guardian Australia detailed the still widespread practice of Catholic hospitals across Australia using the cover of religion to opt out of providing reproductive care, with devastating consequences.

When it delivered its final report in May, the Senate inquiry into reproductive healthcare access recommended increased accessibility of abortion services at public hospitals. But the inquiry fell short of making it a requirement in order to receive public funding.

In 2019, the then shadow minister for women, Tanya Plibersek, indicated Labor would tie funding to public hospitals with willingness to provide abortion services, a policy since dumped by federal Labor.

When Guardian Australia asked the prime minister’s office whether Labor would revert to its 2019 policy, it was referred to the assistant minister for health and aged care, Ged Kearney, who did not respond to questions about whether she supported calls to make federal funding conditional on providing full reproductive care.

“All Australians deserve equitable access to the healthcare that they need,” she said.

Without reform to funding policies, Dr Ronli Sifris, the deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, said the disturbing inequities detailed by Guardian Australia would continue.

“The fact that public hospitals in Australia are legally able to conscientiously object means the vast majority of abortions are provided through the private sector,” Sifris said.

“This is unacceptable. And it would not be accepted if it were any other area of health care.”

Liz Wilkes is based in Toowoomba, Queensland, where she is managing director of My Midwives, the largest private midwifery practice in Australia. She said the refusal of the Mater – the most advanced obstetric hospital in Queensland – to provide certain reproductive healthcare services was affecting women in rural and regional areas in particular.

“Toowoomba refers directly to the Mater as it is our closest tertiary hospital and in a situation where women have travelled to the Mater for a scan only to find out there are complications in their pregnancy like congenital anomalies where a termination is required, they then need to be transferred somewhere else to get that termination done,” Wilkes said.

“That’s just not OK when the Mater is receiving significant government funding. After getting the results of a scan, if there is a problem, these women can’t stay there and be treated and cared for. They then are transferred to another hospital to undergo further treatment and have the termination.

“I think in situations where women are already traumatised and stressed that making them travel like that is absolutely not OK, to find it’s not possible due to these crazy religiously driven restrictions on services. It is just unacceptable.”

A Mater spokesperson said the hospital clearly communicates the services it does provide and, where necessary, refers patients to counselling, support and connection to alternative specialists and hospitals.

The Greens senator Larissa Waters, who chaired the Senate inquiry into reproductive healthcare access, said; “It is outrageous that private hospitals receiving public funding denied healthcare to pregnant people in need.

“We could not get consensus agreement through the Senate inquiry to require private hospitals to provide abortion care as a condition of receiving public funding.

“Women’s stories of their additional suffering, stress and cost when told a foetus was no longer viable but they couldn’t end the pregnancy at that hospital is totally unacceptable.”

She called on the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, “to intervene and revert to Labor’s 2019 policy of requiring private hospitals to provide abortion care as a condition of receiving public funding”.