That’s because, by pressing for the decriminalisation of abortion in the state, they have helped change the lives of people who need access to the medical procedure.
Flinders researchers from women’s and gender studies, history, nursing, public health, law and psychology led a grassroots campaign to bring about law reform and improve access to abortion care.
Drawing on decades of research into the history and politics of abortion and related issues, the group formed the SA Abortion Action Coalition (SAAAC) and advocated for change.
Since 2016, SAAAC has engaged with politicians, policy advisors and journalists, and rallied on the steps of Parliament House to drive awareness and break down the stigma that surrounds abortion – something one in three women in Australia will experience in their lifetime.
In July 2022, new laws to decriminalise abortion finally came into effect, removing it from the criminal legal system and making it part of health law, bringing SA into line with other states.
For Associate Professor Barbara Baird, a long-time abortion activist, and lecturer and researcher in women’s and gender studies, there was never any doubt the group would achieve its quest.
“We built up a massive campaign and a very wide network of support. We were a group of people who knew an enormous amount,” she says.
“It is quite unique in the degree to which it was significantly driven by a group of researchers from one university, although there were other key figures who were external to Flinders.
“Together, we brought a very sophisticated knowledge and analysis of Australian abortion history, anti-abortion-politics and the public health system.”
Abortion has been a focus of Associate Professor Baird’s research career since the 1990s when she completed a PhD on South Australian women’s experiences of illegal abortions before 1970.
It wasn’t until the early 2010s that she and fellow Flinders academics seriously considered the need for a community-driven push for change.
In 2015 SAAAC was formed. Associate Professor Baird became a co-convener alongside Flinders nursing academic Brigid Coombe, who brought experience working in the provision of abortion services in SA, while senior lecturer in civil justice and litigation Mark Rankin applied his law expertise.
Adjunct Professor Judith Dwyer was central to the campaign, contributing her research, long history in abortion activism and distinguished career in public health.
Clinical psychologist and researcher Dr Monica Cations joined the fight along with retired colleague Margie Ripper. In 2019, Judith, Monica and Margie conducted an online survey that showed 80% of respondents supported decriminalisation in SA.
Senior lecturer and historian Dr Prudence Flowers took on various media appearances as well as managing SAAAC’s social media accounts.
“Between Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we had almost 4,000 followers,” Dr Flowers says. “We averaged 40 posts on Facebook each month and offered live coverage and analysis of all the legislative proceedings.”
Associate Professor Catherine Kevin, who has researched the history of the pregnant body in medicine and law for nearly two decades, wrote dozens of media releases, liaised with journalists and was interviewed for radio, TV and print.
Together, their efforts to bring a voice to the need for greater abortion services in SA had a profound impact, informing the Bill’s passage through parliament and, 15 months later, the finalisation of the Termination of Pregnancy Act 2021.
The struggle, Associate Professor Baird says, would always be improving abortion access for regional and remote people who often had to travel long distances to receive care.
“I always thought we would succeed with decriminalisation; improving access to abortion is much harder. It takes enormous amounts of work and persistence,” she says.
“The national case has been – and has been true for SA as well – that if you are well informed and live in a capital city you have good access to abortion services.
“In SA and the Northern Territory, most abortions are provided in the public sector free of charge and this is unique. But if you live in a rural or remote area, have no access to information, or you don’t have residency privileges or Medicare, then access is problematic. The provision of abortion services in large regional centres can be quite precarious.”
SA’s new legislation modernises a bill that dates to 1969. It removes the need for a person to give a reason for a pregnancy termination if no more than 22 weeks and six days pregnant. Patients are also no longer required to prove residency in SA.
A termination up to 22 weeks and six days — which can be either early medication abortion or a surgical abortion — no longer requires the approval of two doctors as stipulated in the previous law, regardless of the stage of pregnancy.
Abortion also now no longer needs to be done in a prescribed hospital. This allows SA to join the rest of the country in allowing access to abortion drugs via telehealth.
Gaining telehealth access to the abortion drugs with the support of a health professional over the phone is important for people living in regional and remote areas who would otherwise have to travel far to access a service.
Like many sensitive topics, abortion has for decades been presented as a controversial subject shrouded in taboo and stigma.
Associate Professor Catherine Kevin says despite the supposed controversy, most Australians believe in access to safe abortion care.
“There are classic assumptions about who opposes abortion – religious people for example. But the fact remains that most people think that abortion should be accessible,” she says.
“We should think about abortion as an experience rather than as a political position because you don't really know anything about abortion until you've needed one, had one or have supported someone who has.
“No one can say what a pregnancy means and how it should be managed except for that person. And that’s the key point, isn’t it?”
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