Views conflict over abortion policy in Cook Islands
There are conflicting reports in the Cook Islands over whether the Ministry of Health told the country's only doctor who specialises in the care of women, to stop making appointments for terminations in New Zealand.
There are conflicting reports in the Cook Islands over whether the Ministry of Health told the country's only doctor specialising in the care of women to stop making appointments for terminations in New Zealand.
Abortion is illegal in the country, but is permitted to save a woman's life or preserve her physical or mental health.
Bridget Grace reports.
Last month, the Cook Islands News reported that the Ministry of Health told the country's only gynaecologist to stop making appointments for terminations at the Epsom Day Clinic in Auckland. The newspaper reported Doctor May Aung as saying she was told by the Ministry not to make such appointments, as some people think that is an encouragement. But the manager at the main pharmacy in Rarotonga, Shannon Saunders, says women in this position are disadvantaged.
SHANNON SAUNDERS: The couple of women that I've had come to me, I mean they're not in a good place, you know, they are desperate for someone to listen to them, for someone to sit with them so they can just cry, they've obviously got themselves into a real situation they're not planning, and it doesn't have to be Doctor May doing it, but there could be somebody that's just helping get the ladies organised.
The Secretary of Health, Elizabeth Iro says the directive not to make appointments didn't come from her.
ELIZABETH IRO: There's no record that says the Ministry has taken a position. So it was actually on some verbal instruction, way back in 2005, that the obstetricians were told by the then Secretary of Health. But they couldn't provide for me any other confirmed directive as a Ministry position.
Under the Cook Islands Crimes Act, adopted over 40 years ago, abortion is illegal. And Mrs Iro says the Ministry of Health must abide by that law. She says the Ministry of Health position is it doesn't make referrals to New Zealand on those grounds.
ELIZABETH IRO: We've never done it and we probably, and we will never do it. That's the position for the Ministry, so we will not be making patient referrals that don't fall under our policy in terms of patient referrals.
The Epsom Day Unit in Auckland says in the last year they have had one person from the Cook Islands use their services. The Cook Islands News reported Doctor May Aung as saying if women are not using contraception and are in trouble, they should be helped as much as possible. Mrs Iro says her understanding is that Doctor May has been advising her patients on where to go, not making appointments. The Cook Islands Family Welfare Association is a local NGO that provides family planning services. Its Executive Director, Rongo File, says she doesn't think it would be difficult for women to access such services.
RONGO FILE: They've got family in New Zealand, most people would have somebody at the other end making those appointments, or you know, it's not that hard to communicate from here to New Zealand.
In 2012 a Ministry of Health survey found 40 percent of youth had sex before the age of 15, with only half of those saying they used condoms. Pharmacy Manager Miss Saunders says there is a need for greater education.
SHANNON SAUNDERS: A lot of it is because of the lack of sexual education and availability of being able to openly talk, that people are getting into situations that they don't necessarily want to, but don't really know how to not, not do that.
Miss Saunders also says she would like to see the law in the Cook Islands changed.
SHANNON SAUNDERS: It's a really tough one because you know, having a baby can change your whole life, and it's really not for the outdated law to decide that that's the right decision for you. Obviously you know, prevention is better than cure, but we are already seeing the stats, that's saying the kids aren't using condoms and things so the chances of falling pregnant is you know, it's right up there.
She says changing the law doesn't mean that everyone would have abortions, as after counselling a lot of women change their mind.
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