Woman calls for better abortion services in Bay of Plenty after being forced to drive 2 hours for procedure

A Whakatāne woman is calling for better access to reproductive healthcare in the Bay of Plenty after she was forced to drive for two hours to get an abortion.

Tracey* got an abortion in 2017 before it was removed from the Crimes Act. She said the whole ordeal was difficult and involved hours of travel and several appointments.

Now five years later, despite abortion being legal, there are still no public providers of surgical abortion in the region.

Instead, pregnant people seeking a surgical abortion must travel at least an hour if not more to Rotorua.

The Whakatāne local told Newshub being forced to travel is not only difficult and expensive but it adds stigma and stress to an already harrowing experience.

At 19 years old, Tracey found out she was pregnant. Luckily she realised within a few weeks of the pregnancy and immediately began the process to get a termination.

Because abortion wasn't legal at the time, the process involved jumping through several hoops including multiple interviews. But she said that wasn't actually the problem, it was the lack of providers in the area that was the real issue - and unfortunately not much has changed.

To get a surgical abortion, the then-teenager was forced to drive all the way to Tokoroa, something that was only possible because she was working part-time and her mum was able to drive her.

"I remember being told I had to go to Tokoroa, which is stupid, Tauranga is right there and Whakatāne had just gotten a relatively new hospital," she told Newshub.

The woman, now 24, said she was forced to make the two-hour journey early in the morning. The entire way she was dreading the judgement she might be faced with. But thankfully, she said the staff were fantastic

"When I did get there, the people were really good, the doctor doing it was really good. It wasn't heinous in judgement or anything but just the fact that I had to get my 19-year-old self to Tokoroa for a surgical appointment…How are people supposed to gain access to that service when they have to drive all that way inland?" she questioned.

"Then you can't really drive afterwards so you have to organise accommodation or start involving other people when really it should just be an accessible medical procedure. It's so stupid."

She said marginalised communities in the area are being let down because abortion is so inaccessible to them.

"In Whakatāne and in Ōpōtiki, there are so many people that haven't had access to education and there's a lot of multi-generational poverty," she said. "People just don't have the ability, they don't have cars, they don't have the education to know these are options, but they can't access them even if they did have the education.

"It just reinforces the fact that they get stuck in these cycles because these options aren't available to them and it's terrible."

Access to abortions in the Bay of Plenty is still very limited. Family Planning in Tauranga provides medical abortions but only up to nine weeks.

Medical abortion is a way to end pregnancy without surgery and is like having a miscarriage. It falls into two categories. Early medical abortion performed up to nine weeks induces a miscarriage, while second-trimester medical abortion is performed later in pregnancy to put a woman into early labour. Surgical abortion involves a doctor removing the pregnancy tissue via the vagina.

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board is the only other abortion provider in the region but they don't provide first-trimester surgical abortion. Instead surgical abortions within 13 weeks are referred to Rotorua Hospital, which is run by Lakes District Health Board. People seeking second-trimester abortions (13-18 weeks) and late abortion (18-20 weeks) have to go through Bay of Plenty DHB social work services.

Bay of Plenty DHB regional community services business leader Karen Smith told Newshub surgical abortion services are contracted to Roturus to ensure women have privacy. 

"We have had a contracted arrangement to provide surgical abortion services for a number of years now. The service we refer women to is at Te Aka Tauawhi Tangata - Women's Clinic Rotorua," Smith said. 

"This is a bespoke termination service that is in a separate building from the general hospital. This provides women with privacy and independence from the hospital's general surgical services."

Smith said there are no immediate plans to perform surgical abortions in Tauranga. 

"It's important to note that women are able to access medical termination services (up to nine weeks' gestation) via Family Planning Services in the Bay of Plenty," she said. 

"More information about these services is available on the national abortion telehealth service website, at decide.org.nz. or call 0800 DECIDE." 

Adds to stigma 

Tracey said being forced to drive to another town to access key medical care adds to the stigma that already surrounds the procedure.

"It makes it feel like such a big deal and I mean it's not. I was expecting to show up and everyone's going to know I'm the person that's having it done. But no, there were like 15 of us having it done that day and they got us through like clockwork," she said.

She said people in the Bay of Plenty deserve proper access to abortion services so they can actually make whatever choice is best for them.

"You shouldn't have to travel to get this sorted out because it just reinforces the stigma of people in that area thinking it's a terrible and wrong thing."

Tracey said it feeds into the incorrect stereotype that only promiscuous people have abortions

"It's just kind of creating this really terrible narrative that it doesn't happen that much and, 'oh, 'you're a bit of a wh**e or whatever'. It's horrific and it's really sad."

She said making the decision to have an abortion is already hard enough without having to take time off work and spend hours driving to the appointment.

"That decision that I made on that day, I didn't just toddle along to the abortion clinic and have it done.

"It was a big decision and regardless of whether people want it done or not,  it weighs on them heavily for years if not decades afterwards. But regardless of how much it's weighing on them, it's their decision to make and it's just really tragic."

More common than people think

Forcing people to travel also keeps the procedure underground and makes it seem less common than it is, she said.

"I don't think people realise that so many people have had this done that they know, but they just don't realise because it's not spoken about and so they think it's just this extreme thing. The fact that you have to travel… to go to a clinic really reinforces that idea."

According to Statistics New Zealand, in the year ended December 2019, 12,857 abortions were performed in New Zealand. The general abortion rate was 13.1 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 years.

Women in their early 20s (20–24) had the highest abortion rates at 19.5 abortions per 1000 women.

Additionally, women in their 20s made up just over half (51 percent) of all abortions in 2019.

Meanwhile, 39 percent of abortions were for women aged 30 years and over. The majority (64 percent) of abortions performed in 2019 were a person's first. Sixty-four percent of abortions were also performed before the 10th week of the pregnancy.

In 2020, the Abortion Legislation Bill, which took abortion out of the Crimes Act, was voted in with 68 votes in favour to 51 against. It meant abortion was no longer a crime in Aotearoa.

It was a conscience vote which meant MPs could vote based on what they believed, not on party lines.

Of the 46 Labour MPs who voted, 37 voted for and 9 voted against. Of the 55 National MPs, 19 voted in favour and 35 voted against. The nine Green MPs all voted in favour along with ACT leader David Seymour.