HealthAgenda

Pregnancy & Birth

Unplanned pregnancy

Understanding your options if you’re confronted with an unintended pregnancy.

Karen Burge
July 2018

For many, pregnancy is a time of happiness, excitement and anticipation. But what are your choices, and who can you turn to, if becoming a mum is the last thing you expected or feel ready to do?

About half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, explains Children by Choice an independent Brisbane-based, not-for-profit organisation that provides information on unplanned pregnancy options.

Women from all walks of life can find themselves in this situation for various reasons. Even if you’re taking the necessary precautions as no contraception is 100% guaranteed.

There are also many women, the organisation explains, who might not be in a position to negotiate using contraception, due to the effects of alcohol or other drugs, lack of power in relationship decision-making or being forced or coerced into having sex.

Early information-gathering

If you suspect you might be pregnant – perhaps your period is late, or you're experiencing nausea or vomiting – then you should confirm it with a home pregnancy test or a visit to your local GP, family planning clinic or women's health centre. When you know for sure that you’re pregnant, you can ask questions, get support and weigh up your options.

Medical Director of Family Planning NSW, Dr Deborah Bateson, says talking to your GP or a local family planning service early on helps you access the full range of choices available. "Doctors and GPs are very experienced and skilled in this area and will provide information and options," she explains.

"Maybe a woman needs more support to make the decision that’s right for her, in which case she might be referred to a counselling service. However, what we do know is that many women have made up their minds before they see a doctor. What they’re seeking isn’t counselling – it's just accurate information."

Knowing your options

An unplanned pregnancy can be emotionally challenging. Some women struggle to decide what’s best, others find their life circumstances make the decision more straightforward, explains Children by Choice. Your options for an unintended pregnancy are:

Termination

Up to 1 in 3 Australian women will choose to have an abortion (or termination) in their lifetime, according to Children by Choice. If you’re less than 9 weeks pregnant, you have the option of a medical or a surgical termination. If you’re more than 9 weeks pregnant, you’ll need to have a surgical termination.

A surgical abortion is a low-risk procedure mostly used in the first trimester (between 7 and 12 weeks) which involves removing the lining and contents of the uterus. Other surgical techniques are used later in pregnancy.

A medical abortion is an alternative to surgery, which can be used in the first 9 weeks of pregnancy. A drug called mifepristone – also known as 'the abortion pill' – together with another drug called misoprostal are used for this procedure.

There's also an option available to organise a medical abortion via a telephone service which provides an alternative safe and private way to terminate an early pregnancy.

Costs will vary depending on the option you choose, where you live and how far along your pregnancy is. While there’s a Medicare rebate for surgical abortions and the cost of medical abortion drugs is covered under the PBS there can still be significant out-of-pocket costs. If cost is a concern, speak with your doctor about available assistance.

Dr Bateson, who’s also an Associate Professor in gynaecology and neonatology at the University of Sydney, says that while women are legally able to access terminations in Australia, the laws and requirements vary from state to state.

Health professionals and credible online sources – such as family planning state-based organisations, Children by Choice, Marie Stopes and Jean Hailes – can provide more information and connect you to support services.

Terminations can be extremely distressing for those involved. Wanted pregnancies can be particularly difficult, Children by Choice explains.

"Women and couples consider this for a broad range of reasons – most often because of fetal or maternal health problems, but sometimes also due to a significant health issue or accident to a partner or existing child, a breakdown of their relationship, an escalation in violence, a sudden change in financial situation, or other big and significant life events."

Some hospitals offer therapeutic termination where an advanced pregnancy has been deemed non-viable, generally via an induced miscarriage. There are private clinics that can offer a surgical alternative.

Parenting

You may choose to continue with the pregnancy, either in partnership with someone or as a solo parent.

"Some people may choose to parent alone and others may find themselves parenting alone due to the breakdown of a relationship or differences in how to proceed with an unintended pregnancy," explains Family Planning NSW. "It’s good to seek support from your family and friends and think about the support networks that will be available for you."

Dr Bateson said women continuing with their pregnancy alone can visit their local family planning clinic for support and guidance.

"It's very much a discussion around emotional support as well as providing practical information. The key thing is for women to feel supported and informed about their rights, including being able to find out if they’re eligible for financial assistance. This may include speaking with a social worker."

Adoption (or fostering)

Adoption is a process where legal rights and responsibility for a child are permanently transferred from the birth parents to the child's adoptive parents.

"When adoption is under consideration we would link people up with expert community services who would work closely with the birth parents. Parents must wait at least 30 days after the child is born before they can sign the adoption papers," explains Dr Bateson.

If you feel you can’t cope with having a child, fostering is an alternative. Temporary foster care (for several weeks) can be used while you sort out accommodation, financial or personal problems whereas long term foster care will result in you losing legal guardianship and/or custody, but you'll still be the child's legal parent.

Whatever you’re considering, know that there’s support and advice available to help you make an informed choice.

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