New over-the-phone abortion service getting 100 bookings a week

Source: Re: News

When Hannah found out she was four-weeks pregnant in March, she quickly went to see her GP to organise an abortion. But because the health system is so backlogged, she says it wasn’t until five weeks later that she finally got a hospital appointment to have a medical abortion.

File picture person with phone.

By Zoe Madden-Smith for Re: News

"I was only given the pills a day before the cut-off [date] where I would have to have a surgical abortion," Hannah, who wanted to be anonymous in this story for privacy reasons, says.

After taking the pills, she was constantly vomiting and thought she would pass out from the pain.

She says she thinks waiting and receiving the pills so close to the cut-off date was the reason why her abortion was so painful and traumatising.

If Hannah had her abortion seven months later a new tele-abortion service called DECIDE where you can organise a medical abortion on the phone without going to a clinic or hospital would have been available.

"I wish it was around then. It would have been so much faster," she says.

Abortion options in Aotearoa

In New Zealand, you can have an early medical abortion - where you take two pills at separate times - in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. In most cases, these abortions can happen at home, but you’d need an appointment at a hospital, Family Planning, or specialist clinic first.

But since November 2022, the new website DECIDE allows anyone to arrange an early medical abortion by phone from anywhere in the country.

This means you can call up and have a phone consultation with a health professional and then get sent the pills in a discrete package in the mail. The service is free if you are a resident.

If you are past nine weeks, there are still other abortion options such as late medical abortions and surgical abortions where the pregnancy is removed in a hospital.

Telehealth abortions already a success

Simon Snook, a sexual and reproductive health specialist who launched DECIDE with The Women's Clinic, says in the first two weeks of its launch the service "completely went off".

"We are receiving around 15 bookings a day. Certainly more than we were expecting," he says.

If the number of tele-abortions from DECIDE continues at this rate, it will match the number of early medical abortions across the entire country in 2021.

In 2021, there were a total of 13,257 abortions in New Zealand. Early medical abortions accounted for 43.8% of these abortions in, a total of 5811.

If the amount of bookings for DECIDE tele-abortions continues at 15 bookings a day there will be 5475 a year.

Simon says the service won’t replace local services, but it will give people another option.

"People who live in rural areas with less access to abortion services or people who are wanting to conceal a pregnancy, so visiting a clinic isn’t ideal, are probably the groups we're expecting to have the greatest use of it, but this service is for anyone who thinks it’s best way for them. It’s completely their choice."

While the service is more streamlined than going to a hospital or clinic, the service isn’t just a one-and-done transaction. You can have a comprehensive consultation beforehand and access support throughout the entire process, he says.

"They have access to us 24 hours a day to speak to someone if they have any issues and we follow them up all the way through until we confirm that the pregnancy has ended. They're not left on their own," he says.

"Some local services, with short staffing and overwhelmed waitlists can find it hard to follow up with people. But due to the size of this service, we can be there."

A Ministry of Health - Manatū Hauora spokesperson said it expects tele-abortion care provided through DECIDE to "improve access and ease pressure and reduce wait times for those requiring abortion services".

Hannah knows what it’s like to feel forgotten by the health system.

Despite being told by hospital staff they would ring her the day after the medical abortion and then a week later to see how she was going, she says she never heard from them again.

"I was pretty stressed out because I didn't know who to call to check. It was a rollercoaster," she says.