Research focus on late termination pregnancy

Framing recommendations about policy and practices concerning the late termination of pregnancy in South Australia will be the focus of Dr Prudence Flowers, who has been selected as the 2018 Catherine Helen Spence Scholarship recipient.

Dr Flowers is the 20th recipient of this $25,000 South Australian government scholarship for female social science researchers, which was established in 1911. Her project will compare the legal and public health frameworks of late termination of pregnancy in South Australia, with England, Canada (British Columbia and Quebec), and the US (Washington and New Mexico).

“My goal is to offer a model of best practice that meets the needs of the women who seek later abortions and the medical professionals who provide them,” says Dr Flowers.

Since 2006, increased restrictions have been placed on late termination in South Australia. According to law, abortion is available in South Australia up to 28 weeks, but in practice, metropolitan public hospitals, which perform almost all terminations, provide abortion only up to either 23 or 24 weeks. This gap is because Crown Law has given the Department of Health increasingly conservative interpretations of what the law allows.

In South Australia, approximately 2 per cent of abortions performed annually occur after 20 weeks gestation. Women seek later terminations for a range of reasons, ranging from diagnoses of serious fetal defects to psychosocial factors affecting a pregnant woman’s personal circumstances. This small number of women, who decide that termination is their best option, face a confusing gap between the law, public health policy, and the provision of medical services.

Dr Flowers says her project, to be delivered to the Catherine Helen Spence Committee in August 2020, will investigate how other regions with comparable approaches to law and public health handle the provision of late terminations. Her research and interviews with people working on the front lines of abortion provision and abortion regulation in South Australia will be compared with international case studies.

“I am interested in identifying what abortion providers, clinicians, and activists view as best practice for later terminations, and analysing the formal and informal barriers that surround this procedure,” says Dr Flowers.

While much existing scholarship on late termination focuses on the law, on ethics, or on specific medical diagnoses, Dr Flowers will use a social science lens to explore the impact of different medical and legal regimes on health care.

“My research will strive to humanise the women who seek late terminations and the doctors, social workers, and nurses who provide them,” she explains.

Dr Flowers says the review is timely, as there is a push in South Australia for decriminalisation of abortion, involving activist organisations such as the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition and a cross-party coalition of sympathetic politicians. However, it remains a contentious issue, with many opponents of abortion focusing on gestation limits and viability as a way of advancing their broader claims about fetal rights and subjectivity. Dr Flowers hopes that her research will help bring clarity and resolution to this issue.

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College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences