Accessing abortions: Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall announces move to identify gaps in the system

Abortion providers are now legally required to report to the Ministry of Health a list of “unidentifiable” patient information including how long each woman has waited for the procedure.

Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall has unveiled details of new reporting regulations for abortion providers aimed at improving access and quality of services.

“The Government is committed to ensuring everyone who needs to access abortion services can, regardless of their situation or where they live,” Verrall said.

She said she was aware of some women experiencing barriers which meant they couldn’t get an abortion until they were more than nine weeks pregnant and by that time needed a surgical procedure.

“It would be good to make sure everyone who was suitable for an early medical abortion, have the option so they didn’t have to have an operation,” Verrall said.

The reporting regulations were a requirement under the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act.

Within a month of each abortion, the provider had to submit to the ministry the woman’s ethnicity and age, wait time for the service, how it was funded and whether it was a self-referral.

The director general of health was then expected to review and report on whether there was timely and equitable access to these services, and the relative costs to patients accessing them. Verrall said this was be assessed every five years or “as the Government needed to” and would help steer funding decisions.

“The priority in the past was around tracking abortion and not really treating it as a health procedure … we are making sure abortions were accessible and of high quality,” Verrall said.

Last year, abortion was removed from the Crimes Act to allow it to be treated as a health issue. Before that law reform abortion was a crime in New Zealand but exemptions meant a woman could get access if two doctors agreed a pregnancy would put her at physical or mental risk – a process that was criticised as both slow and stigmatising.

Dunedin gynaecologist Helen Paterson, who is also a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, said that since the law reforms there had been a big swing towards early medical abortions which indicated wait times had struck.

But she expected data would still show wait times varied depending on where patients lived, with a particular divide between urban and rural centres.

She said that before the reforms providers were required to report similar information, but to the Ministry of Justice.

“Now that it’s to the Ministry of Health I would expect it would give them more power to treat it as a health issue.”

Paterson said she did worry the data wouldn’t be used in the most effective way and it was important that was constantly challenged.

“Often the more questions you have, the shorter the answers and then the quality isn’t as good … so we will have to wait and see.”

The Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (Alranz) president, Terry Bellamak, said this was really important information to collect to show how the abortion system treated women.

“All this information really impacts on people’s experience of abortion care and that’s huge to improving delivery.”

About abortion reporting regulations:

• All abortion service providers were legally required to report a list of non-identifiable patient information to the Ministry of Health within a month of each procedure.

• This information included the women’s ethnicity and age, wait time for the service, how it was funded and whether it was a self-referral.

• Every five years, the director general of health was expected to use this information to review and report on whether there was timely and equitable access to these services, and on the relative costs to patients accessing them.

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