Theme Abortion

Written by Barbara Baird, Flinders University

Until the last decades of the twentieth century leadership in the area of abortion was, in the conventional sense, overwhelmingly in the hands of men. The public meaning of abortion was defined by men and male-dominated institutions and access for pregnant women seeking an abortion was increasingly policed by a male-dominated medical profession throughout the century. In this context women's leadership in relation to abortion was performed from outside mainstream spaces and in most cases took the form of challenge to normative values and definitions of white womanhood by activists and writers and by those midwives and other sympathetic providers of abortion who worked surreptitiously to meet women's needs. It was only in the wake of the Women's Liberation Movement that women were also able to exercise leadership in relation to abortion from inside political institutions and from within the professions and institutions but even here not always without resistance.

The focus here is on women's leadership in making the changes necessary to facilitate women's access to safe and affordable abortion, and so to reproductive rights and freedom as defined by feminism. It must be acknowledged, however, that in the latter decades of the twentieth century some women have also actively opposed women's rights to abortion and the leadership of these women is also considered here.

At the turn of the twentieth century spokesmen for Australia's major institutions were concerned that, despite its criminality, the incidence of abortion was rising. The 1903-1904 New South Wales Royal Commission into the Decline in the Birthrate heard from doctors, clergymen, police officers, bureaucrats and others who decried women's selfishness. Their refusal of maternity through the practices of birth control was seen as 'race suicide' in the face of the white nation's need to populate the continent and the imagined ever-present threat of invasion from the North. This understanding of abortion set the terms through which abortion was defined throughout the century - as (white) women's refusal of maternity and, so, her duty to the white nation.

The gender politics of this understanding were challenged by the liberal and feminist social movements of the 1960s and 1970s which successfully created legitimate public space for white women's leadership in relation to abortion. In the 1970s some Aboriginal women were, however, because of their very different relationship to maternity in Australia, not in support of liberalised access to abortion. This tension remained unresolved and abortion as framed by white feminists still often sat uncomfortably with Aboriginal women's politics at the end of the twentieth century.

The appointment of prominent women to head the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, an inquiry established by the progressive Whitlam government in 1974 in response to public debate about abortion, signified a key change in women's relationship to public speech about abortion in the mainstream. Chaired by leading legal figure Elizabeth Evatt, with broadcaster Anne Deveson also playing a major role, the Commission's report recommended thorough abortion law reform. But the government changed and the Commission's recommendations were shelved.

Women who publicly advocated women's rights and easier access to abortion often faced hostile responses. The troubles faced by Jean Devanny in the early part of the century are apposite in this context. Devanny was a Communist novelist and activist who wrote and spoke widely about the hardships that working class women in particular faced in the domain of sexuality and reproduction. She advocated tirelessly for women's sexual freedom and access to birth control and legal abortion. Her novel The Virtuous Courtesan was censored in Australia in 1935 for its reference to 'a self-administered abortion' (Moore 2005, p. 337) and her expulsion from the Communist Party in 1941 was related to her outspoken sexual politics. Even at the end of the century 'revelations' about abortion in women's autobiographies were treated sensationally.

Sixty years after the censorship of Devanny's novel (not the only book banned for containing material about abortion), and twenty years after the shelving of the Royal Commission, a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) report on the termination of pregnancy in Australia and its authors met a similar fate. The expert panel who prepared the report was comprised of nine women and one man including high-placed health administrators, leading feminist academics and medical doctors, and a senior social worker and a nurse from the ground-breaking and only publicly funded abortion clinic in the country. That is, the report drew on the leading expertise on abortion amassed by the dedication and commitment of women who had advanced in these professions since the 1970s and the political gains of the women's health and pro-choice movements in particular. One of the report's key recommendations was that abortion should be thoroughly decriminalised. This recommendation, and some others too, thus broke with the insistence of over a century that abortion was fundamentally a moral issue that needed policing. The NHMRC report met with an unprecedented reaction from anti-abortionists and was eventually completely withdrawn by the (male) Minister for Health at the time. Public criticism of the report focused in part on the alleged bias and dubious capacity of a predominantly female, and feminist, committee. Any idea that women, and indeed feminism, may have been an ideal source of knowledge and leadership about abortion was turned on its head. As two of the panel members commented 'feminists and women [were] by definition excluded from scientific eminence and feminism [was] posited as antipathetic to rationality and intellectual rigour' (Ripper and Ryan 1998, p. 320).

Women's public speech and political leadership regarding abortion was nurtured most by the environments of radical political movements. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Soviet Union was still promoting radical analyses of women's social position, the women of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) debated birth control and abortion. The backdrop of the suffering of working class women in the Depression, including the death of women from unsafe abortions and in childbirth, lead them to support birth control including abortion. Their debate took into account the eugenic and often anti-working class views of many middle class reformers about working class women's fertility and included opposition to the medical monopoly over birth control. In 1931 the Working Women's Conference adopted a resolution which demanded that birth control knowledge 'be made available to the millions of mothers of our class' and that 'abortion be carried out under skilled medical attention in public hospitals, in all cases where requested by pregnant women, provided that the circumstances are considered justified by a committee of women workers attached to the local clinic'. The CPA women claimed that their resolution was the first time that 'any section of the working class movement [had] made a statement on this question' (Stevens 1987 pp. 48-9). It was not, however, adopted as CPA policy.

Forty years later Women's Liberationists considered the family, women's sexuality and intimate lives as political matters and more successfully opened the way to revolutionary new thinking about women and gender relations. In most capital cities Women's Abortion Action Campaign groups, spin-offs from the central Women's Liberation group, developed radical thinking on abortion, often with a socialist inflection that continued the CPA women's emphasis on the importance of the issue for working class women. Women's Liberation women identified with women who had abortions and built a politics of women's rights and sexual freedom. Women who inherited this legacy continued to pursue a direct action form of reproductive politics through the final decades of the twentieth century in order to 'demand' women's rights.

In their focus on law reform the liberal Abortion Law Reform/Repeal Associations (ALRAs) that were established in several states around Australia in the 1960s and 1970s had more limited vision although membership of ALRAs and Women's Liberation sometimes overlapped. But ALRAs were another arena that provided space for women's leadership.

Anti-abortion groups emerged in response to the sudden rise of Women's Liberation and the relatively quick turn away from outright opposition to abortion by middle class institutions. In this context conservative women stood up to offer leadership to oppose abortion. The turn to neo-conservatism during the Howard government years (1996-2007), including a pro-natal policy framework framed by 'the narrative about feminism that held it responsible for denigrating motherhood and ruining women's lives' (Campo 2009, p. 330) and the turbulence in abortion politics during this period, created ideal conditions for this kind of leadership opportunity. Melinda Tankard Reist was one such woman enabled by this climate to become a significant anti-abortion figure and media commentator on a range of issues pertaining to gender and sexuality. Her book Giving Sorrow Words (2000), which proposed the idea that abortion harms women, received extraordinary media coverage and her highly contested ideas were widely taken up, even by those who remained 'pro-choice'.

The increase in the number of women in Australian politics, an effect of second wave feminism's focus on this key institution, gave women the privileged opportunities of the parliament for contribution to and leadership of public debate about abortion. Since the early 1970s there were women who, committed to women's right to access abortion, used the parliament to speak out, often to provide strategic opposition to anti-abortion bills and in some cases to sponsor abortion reform bills. (Some female parliamentarians were outspoken in opposition to abortion). The formation of Emily's List in the mid 1990s, an ALP organisation which supports female election candidates, who must support women's right to choose abortion to gain membership, boosted the presence of 'pro-choice' women in Australia parliaments.

The culmination of this development was the phenomenon of women parliamentarians joining together across party lines to sponsor and vote on progressive abortion legislation in inspirational displays of female solidarity and cooperation. This was a much remarked feature of the passing of abortion law reform in the Tasmanian parliament in 2001 and in the success of the repeal of the special status given to the abortifacient drug RU486 in the federal parliament in 2006.

Women's leadership concerning abortion has not just been at the level of ideas and politics. Women have also been pragmatic in their attempts to assist women seeking abortion. As (mostly male) doctors extended their reach over all aspects of health care throughout the early years of the twentieth century the older working class culture of the provision of abortion by midwives and other community based practitioners, and by women operating on themselves, declined. In this context the opportunity for women to offer practical leadership was limited, often expressed only in the simplest of gestures such as disclosing their own experiences of abortion, passing on information about 'where to go' or supporting each other in the stressful process of seeking and undergoing an illegal, sometimes dangerous and always secret experience.

But a few women persisted as non-medical providers of abortion services right until the last days before the liberalisation of abortion law delivered the doctors a complete monopoly. Certainly not all abortionists of the pre-liberalisation period, male or female, were skilled or sympathetic but many were. This is a classic case where women's actions were not considered worthy, let alone heroic or leading, while some sympathetic male doctors who offered the same service in the years before liberalisation have been celebrated for their brave commitment to women's health and reproductive rights.

One such woman, Sister G___, performed abortions at her home in inner city Adelaide over a thirty-six year period. She was charged six times, found guilty five times and served four gaol terms. Her final appearance before the court, in 1969 at the age of seventy-eight, followed an abortion performed on a married woman. The woman's pregnancy was aborted successfully and she suffered no ill effects (until police became involved!). Sister G___ pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Justice Roma Mitchell, then fifty-five years old and well into an outstanding legal career. In light of the defendant's age and infirmity Justice Mitchell did not give a custodial sentence but instead put Sister G___ on a good behaviour bond and required her to leave the home from where she had conducted her business over many years. This brief moment of confrontation between these two women stands as a symbolic confrontation between two modes of women's leadership - differentiated by class, era and relationship to the institutions of the state.

Women empowered with the ideas of Women's Liberationists also took practical steps and leadership in the provision of safe and women-friendly abortion services in the post-liberalisation period. In 1972 Queensland women (and men) from ALRA set up Children by Choice, an organisation initially based in Brisbane that soon became the central point for referring women to abortion services over the border in New South Wales, as well as for lobbying, offering counselling and providing education and information. The organisation continues into the twenty-first century with several sites across Queensland and a statewide telephone service. In 1977 Sydney feminist women set up the Bessie Smyth Foundation which opened an abortion clinic run on feminist principles in Homebush which ran until 2002. The Foundation continues as a counselling and support agency for women seeking an abortion. In Tasmania a group of women set up the Women's Health Foundation in 1984, initially with the aim of raising money to fund women who needed to travel to Melbourne for an abortion. Their goal soon shifted and, after seven years of quiet fund-raising, planning and preparation, in 1991 they opened an abortion clinic which became a significant provider of abortions for Tasmanian women until its closure in 2001.

These efforts by activists sat alongside the blossoming of women's leadership in the relevant professions and institutional spaces in the period since second wave feminism. Academics across the humanities and social sciences developed striking new ways of understanding the gendered nature of reproduction. Researchers and practitioners in the health and caring professions improved the provision of services. In what can be seen retrospectively as a brief window of opportunity, the femocrat phenomenon - the creation of positions inside the bureaucracy for the pursuit of social policy that advanced women's interests, also contributed to the improvement of abortion services for women. In 1984 in South Australia, for example, arguably the time and place where femocrat influence was most widespread, the Minister for Health in the ALP government of SA appointed the Women's Advisor to the SA Health Commission to establish a working party to examine the adequacy of abortion services. Under her leadership a group of feminist health professionals and a lawyer created a report that was the basis for the establishment of Australia's only free-standing abortion clinic and pregnancy counselling service operating within the public health system. Anti-abortionists organised fierce opposition to the implementation of the report's recommendations and it was six years before the clinic opened. Nevertheless the opening of the Pregnancy Advisory Centre was a high water mark of the effects of women's leadership in the provision of top quality abortion services in Australia.

It would be remiss not to mention the practical efforts of women organised to oppose abortion. Earlier efforts to set up services to support to women who were choosing to continue pregnancies, often in difficult circumstances, and indeed to persuade women not to terminate their pregnancies, were part of the work of anti-abortion groups in some states. These early efforts went on in the 2000s to become better resourced telephone counselling services identified by the women's health community as 'false providers' of pregnancy counselling (Allanson 2007).

Throughout the twentieth century women responded to women's need for access to safe abortion services with an understanding that abortion is 'a women's issue' without equal. Those women who were at the cutting edge of the advancement of women's rights in this area have typically worked in concert with other women. But even the liberalisation of the law and services in the 1970s did not shift the personal as well as public opposition and hostility that was often the fate of women who offered leadership in this area. After a brief period of the alignment of the state with the goals of liberal feminism, from the 1970s through to the early 1990s, and despite the influence of women working from within and without the mainstream, women who stood up for women's right to abortion were again, at the end of the twentieth century, cast as at odds with the default setting of a white masculinist nation.

Published Resources


  • Albury, Rebecca, The politics of reproduction: beyond the slogans, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1998. Details
  • Allen, Judith, Sex and Secrets: Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1990. Details
  • Petersen, Kerry, Abortion regimes, Dartmouth, Aldershot, England, 1993. Details
  • Reist, Melinda Tankard, Giving sorrow words: women's stories of grief after abortion, Duffy &​ Snellgrove, Potts Point, New South Wales, 2000. Details
  • Ryan, Lyndall; Ripper, Margie and Buttfield, Barbara, We Women Decide: Women's Experience of Seeking Abortion in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania 1985-1992, Women's Studies Unit, Flinders University of SA, Bedford Park, South Australia, 1994. Details
  • Siedlecky, Stefania and Wyndham, Diana, Populate and perish: Australian women's fight for birth control, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Stevens, Joyce, Taking the revolution home: work among women in the Communist Party of Australia 1920-1945, Sybylla Press, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1987. Details

Book Sections

  • Reade, Katy, 'Limited gestures: white feminists and Aboriginal women in the 1970s' women's movement', in Dealing With Difference: Essays in Gender, Culture and History, The University of Melbourne: Department of History, Melbourne, Victoria, 1997, pp. 118-129. Details

Conference Papers

  • Barker, Lee, 'Establishing a Women's Controlled Abortion Clinic - the Tasmanian Experience', in Abortion: Legal Right, Women’s Right, Human Right, Proceedings of the First National Conference of the Abortion Rights Network of Australia, ARNA, Windsor, Queensland, 1993. Details

Journal Articles

  • Allanson, Susie, 'Pregnancy/Abortion Counselling: False Providers, Mandatory Counselling, Ultrasound and "Cooling Off"', Women Against Violence, vol. 19, 2007. Details
  • Baird, Barbara, '"The incompetent, barbarous old lady round the corner": The image of the backyard abortionist in pro-abortion politics', Hecate, vol. 22, no. 1, 1996, pp. 7 - 26. Details
  • Baird, Barbara, 'The futures of abortion', Feminist Temporalities, 2006. Details
  • Baird, Barbara, 'Maternity, whiteness and national identity: the case of abortion', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 21, no. 50, July 2006. Details
  • Campo, Natasha, '"Feminism failed me": Childcare, Maternity Leave and the Denigration of Motherhood', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 24, no. 61, September 2009, pp. 325 - 342. Details
  • Davenport, Cheryl, 'Achieving Abortion Law Reform in Western Australia', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 13, no. 28, October 1998. Details
  • MacKinnon, Alison, '"Bringing the Unclothed Immigrant into the World": Population Policies and Gender in Twentieth-Century Australia', Journal of Population Research, vol. 17, no. 2, 2000. Details
  • Moore, Nicole, 'Treasonous sex: birth control obscenity censorship and white Australia', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 20, no. 48, Routledge, 2005. Details
  • Ripper, Margaret and Ryan, Lyndall, 'The Role of the Withdrawal Method in the control of Abortion', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 13, no. 28, 1998. Details


  • National Health and Medical Research Council, An information paper on termination of pregnancy in Australia, Commonwealth Government of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1996. Details

Online Resources