Illawarra Health workers welcome increased access to medical abortions

Illawarra Mercury – Kate McIlwain

Medical abortions will be much easier to access for Illawarra residents from next month, as loosened restrictions allow all doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe the two-part medication that terminates pregnancy and all pharmacies to stock it.

Currently, women who want a medical, rather than surgical, abortion are directed to just eight medical practices across the region where doctors can prescribe the drug – known as MS-2 Step in Australia, or RU486 overseas.

Then, even once they have the prescription, many people are forced to travel from pharmacy to pharmacy to find someone who stocks and dispenses the pills.

From August, health practitioners will no longer have to undergo special certification and registration through the drug’s importer MS Health after the Therapeutic Goods Administration scrapped these restrictions.

All pharmacies will be able to dispense MS-2 Step, while nurse practitioners, who work at places like sexual health clinics and urgent care centres, will be able to prescribe it for the first time.

The move has been applauded by the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre, which receives requests from women every day seeking help to access an abortion. The centre’s website currently only lists eight practices in the Illawarra which have a doctor who can prescribe the medication.

General manager Sally Stevenson said the centre had advocated for the change to occur and believed it would have a big impact on local services.

“This will make a huge improvement women’s ability to access abortions in the Illawarra, with currently only limited general practitioners provided the service and only a couple bulk-billing these appointments that we are aware of,” she said.

“Many women in the Illawarra struggle to navigate the barriers to care with the limited publicly available information, and easing restrictions on providers will make a practical difference to these women’s experience.”

“This change will both make a huge material difference to women’s ability to access abortion services, and acknowledges the reality that abortion is a normal, common, necessary, and safe part of health care.

“Regulating abortion provision as a health need, instead of as a moral issue, is crucial to having a system that supports women’s reproductive autonomy.”

She said the centre was especially pleased to see recognition of the qualifications and experience of nurse practitioners, as research had shown nurse-led medical abortion was effective, safe, and increased access.

Likewise, Wollongong pharmacist Asim Iqbal who has been dispensing the two-step pill for a number of years, said the loosened restrictions would make life easier for Illawarra women seeking an abortion.

He said the changes would mean they were no longer forced to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to find someone to dispense the medication.

“This is a medication that needs to be taken in a very timely manner, within the first 63 days (nine weeks) after gestation, so if there’s a delay and you can’t find a prescriber it’s quite a big barrier and you end up needing a surgical abortion,” he said.

“I know of a few other local pharmacies who do it now, but I would say probably 90% of places, if not more, wouldn’t stock it.”

Mr Iqbal said he hoped there would still be information available for pharmacists who wanted more training on dispensing the pill, as the two-part medication needed to be taken in a particular way.

“So for the first pill, the timing that you take it, away from food, is important and the second lot has to be put in the corner of the mouth and dissolved slowly,” he said.

“We want women getting the benefit of it, so we do need to make sure that we are all, as health professionals, trained to provide that information.”

Ms Stevenson said there was still much more work to be done to make abortion affordable, timely and non-judgemental.

“But this is an incredible step forward and gives us hope for the future,” she said.