How Australian Women Won the Right to Abortion

Today, the right to abortion is secure across Australia. It wasn’t won by parliamentary means, however, but by militant campaigning and union solidarity.

Protest rally in Sydney, Australia on March 21, 1979, against a motion by MP Stephen Lusher that would have denied health fund rebates for abortion. (Stevens / Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

When news hit Australia that the US Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, thousands rallied in solidarity with US women. Although there are still barriers to abortion in Australia — including restrictions and cost — the right to choose is largely taken for granted. But prior to the 1970s, abortion was a criminal offense. Thanks to an 1861 act of the British parliament that applied in the Australian colonies, abortion was punishable by a maximum penalty of life in prison.

It took decades of campaigning by doctors, lawyers, Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) activists, and trade unions to change popular attitudes and lay the basis for reform. The political establishment tried to hold back progress, and this included politicians from the Liberal and National parties as well as the Catholic right of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). However, by the 1980s, Australian women had won the right to choose. In light of the new threat to abortion rights, it’s a history well worth revisiting today.

Anti-Choice, Pro-Death

Prior to reform, the criminalization of abortion did not stop women from obtaining the procedure — but it did expose them to a deadly risk. According to Stefania Siedlecky, a pioneering doctor, teacher, and feminist, “women who had means could attend a skilled abortionist. Otherwise, they went to someone less skilled or tried to abort themselves.” As she explains, the risk was considerably higher for working-class women, and abortion “remained the highest single cause of maternal death in Australia until the 1970s.”

This situation did not trouble the authorities. In Melbourne and Sydney, politicians, religious leaders, and state bureaucrats turned a blind eye to a flourishing black market in abortions. Corrupt police protected price-gouging doctors in return for kickbacks. Shockingly, the same authorities also subjected indigenous women to forced sterilizations. The establishment was less concerned with unborn children and more concerned with disciplining women and keeping them bound to patriarchal family structures.

In the 1950s and 60s the long postwar economic boom laid the basis for change by drawing women into the workforce, both raising their expectations and granting them unprecedented economic independence. The workforce participation rate of married women rose from 8.6 percent in 1947 to 18.7 percent in 1961, then to 32.7 percent at the time of the 1971 census.

At the same time, women’s pay was legally lower than men’s. Child care was expensive or nonexistent and sexism and harassment were rampant. Although the pill had become available in 1961, women still faced considerable barriers to accessing contraception. Women faced a growing contradiction. As their economic power and independence grew, it cast into stark relief the sexist legal and political establishment. The result was a growing feminist movement.

It’s not hard to see why the Liberal and National parties opposed reform, given their Cold War conservatism, support for “traditional family values,” and close connection with right-wing churches and civil society organizations. Although advocates for abortion rights found allies in the ALP’s left, the party’s right was dominated by conservative Catholics who virulently opposed reform.

On top of this, from the late 1960s, cashed-up religious groups and moral crusaders generously funded antiabortion organizations. For example, in 1969, the Catholic Church established Right to Life (RTL). In the early 1980s, a member of Right to Life Australia — a more militant offshoot — explained their project honestly:

Since you can’t go into abortion clinics with machine guns shooting at people to stop killing babies, you must use democratic means.

On the other side, civil libertarians, lawyers, doctors, and students initially led the fight for abortion rights. While early abortion rights advocates generally focused on legal challenges and parliamentary reform, by the late 1960s, Australia was becoming polarized politically. Hundreds of thousands had joined moratorium marches calling for an end to the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, left-wing organizations grew rapidly alongside unions and the movement for indigenous land rights and civil rights.

In 1970, inspired by the wave of struggle and similar efforts overseas, radical feminists came together to found the WLM. The WLM insisted on challenging sexism openly, and refused to regard abortion as a taboo. Instead, it insisted that women should have equal pay and self-determination over their own bodies, which meant access to contraception and abortion on demand. The WLM was not afraid of pursuing these demands with militant protest action. Thanks to this determination, in the 1970s, the WLM led the fight for abortion rights.

From Legal Reform to Women’s Liberation

Prior to 1970, challenges to the ban on abortion centered around court cases or parliamentary reform. For example, in May 1969 two doctors appeared before the Supreme Court of Victoria after having been arrested and charged with performing an abortion. Judge Clifford Menhennitt heard their case and acquitted the doctors on the basis that the abortion had been necessary to preserve the woman from either serious danger to her life or to her physical or mental health. This ruling — known as the Menhennitt ruling — became a landmark precedent establishing that some abortions were legal.

Then, in May 1970, the New South Wales government sent the infamous “Abortion Squad” to raid the Heatherbrae abortion clinic in Bondi. Police arrested five staff under the antiabortion law. In October 1971, the district court acquitted all Heatherbrae staff and handed down a ruling similar to Menhennitt’s in a decision known as the Levine ruling.

Nevertheless, the high-profile case galvanized proabortion activists. In the year between May 1970 and 1971, the WLM called six major demonstrations. To begin with, these efforts focused on legislative reform. On April 20, 1971, WLM activists submitted a petition with nine thousand signatures to the New South Wales parliament. However, the parliament denied them permission to present the petition, with seventy-nine ALP and conservative politicians voting against and only fifteen Labor MPs voting in favor. Subsequently, leading WLM activists concluded that the prospects for parliamentary reform were very slim.

The groups that made up the Sydney WLM responded in a number of ways. The SLUT Brigade (Sisters in Liberation Union of Terrorists) — on the more militant wing of the WLM — painted signs on the houses of antiabortion Labor MPs, informing neighbors of their stance. According to WLM member Sue Wills, “the intention was to humiliate these men where they lived, not where they worked and could hide behind the mask of public office.”

More moderate parts of the movement emphasized education, producing printed material aimed at school children, or organizing public meetings and debates. At one such event in March 1972, feminist leader Germaine Greer debated with religious leaders and intellectuals at the Sydney Town Hall before an estimated audience of five thousand people that overflowed into the street.

In December 1972, Gough Whitlam — a public supporter of abortion rights — was elected prime minister, raising hopes for legislative change once more. However, when federal parliament debated reforming abortion laws in 1973, MPs from Labor’s Catholic right invoked the “conscience vote” to defeat the move. They were supported by conservatives and a large mobilization of RTL groups.

This created a debate in the WLM. Many argued that common-law rulings — like those made by Menhennitt and Levine — were more likely to produce safer results for women than legislative change. Because they didn’t alter the law, judicial rulings did not raise the prospect that onerous restrictions would be placed on access to abortion, including mandatory time limits or the requirement that more than one doctor approve the procedure.

More radical feminists argued that giving doctors the right to permit abortion “medicalized” the issue. Although women might benefit from this, it did not grant them control over their bodies. Rather, it delegated this control to medical practitioners who served as gatekeepers. Instead, these activists insisted that the legality of an abortion should depend solely on a woman’s decision.

Activism Extends Access to Abortion

In response to these parliamentary deadlocks, the pro-choice movement turned toward political activism, as well as community and health activism aimed at improving funding for and access to abortion services. The Women’s Abortion Action Coalition continued to organize rallies for repeal of abortion bans, while the WLM encouraged women to make public statements about their own abortions to remove the stigma. Feminists also assisted thousands of women seeking safer abortions by helping them travel to Melbourne and Sydney, and by referring them to private clinics. In Queensland, Children by Choice arranged for women to travel interstate.

It was clear the campaign was swimming with the tide. Despite setbacks in parliament, from 1973, the Whitlam government developed a range of policies that benefited women. For example, Whitlam increased funding for women’s centers and refuges, allowed single mothers to access parental benefits, introduced no-fault divorce, and lifted the 27.5 percent sales tax on contraceptives. Other social democratic reforms introduced by Whitlam, such as public health insurance and free tertiary education, benefited women. Indeed, by July 1975, the Whitlam government allowed women who received “lawful” abortions to claim a Medibank rebate for most of the costs.

This combination of feminist activism and governmental reform helped to destigmatize abortion, bolstering the consensus that it should be safe, available, and affordable. As early as 1970, a Gallup poll reported that 57 percent of the population agreed that abortion should be legal either “in all circumstances” or “in cases of exceptional hardship, either physical, mental, or social.” This represented a swing of 9 percent since 1968. Only 11 percent opposed legalizing abortion. These changes in public opinion meant that the issue was increasingly becoming a political liability for the Right.

Beating Back the Backlash

Despite the progress of the early-to-mid-1970s, right-wing and antiabortion organizations did not give up. After the Whitlam government was sacked in 1975, Malcolm Fraser’s new Liberal-National Coalition government cut funding for women’s services and attacked Medibank.

On March 21, 1979, conservative MP Stephen Lusher went a step further, and moved a motion to end Medibank rebates for abortion. WLM members and pro-choice activists responded by calling rallies nationwide. These mobilizations hit their mark. Many MPs feared that denying this financial subsidy to their poorer constituents might harm their reelection chances. As a result, Lusher’s motion failed sixty-two votes to fifty-two.

The toughest battle, however, was to be in Queensland, which was then dominated by the hard-right government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. In 1979, Queensland’s first abortion clinic opened its doors. Just one year later, RTL campaigned for it to be closed, and the Bjelke-Petersen government responded with a new bill which banned abortion unless a woman’s life was immediately threatened. Worse still, it placed a ban on women traveling interstate to obtain an abortion. Some right-wing Labor politicians supported the bill, as did RTL, which mobilized with a “Celebrate Life” march and by broadcasting the heartbeat of a fetus over commercial radio.

Pro-choice groups held rallies in defiance of bans on marches imposed by Bjelke-Petersen. They won the support of Queensland’s Trades and Labour Council (TLC), which issued a statement declaring that “the question of pregnancy termination should be the decision of the woman and her doctor.”

In the face of this show of strength, the Bjelke-Petersen government retreated. It was a resounding victory, and it reinforced the shift in public opinion. In May 1980, a Women’s Weekly survey reported that 94 percent of Australian women believed abortion should be available in certain circumstances, while 62 percent thought it should be available on demand.

Unions, Women Workers, and Abortion

In the mid 1970s, about 50 percent of Australia’s workforce were union members. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between 1970 and 1975, the unions’ female membership grew by 50 percent while their male membership increased by only 12 percent. By 1980, 31.9 percent of trade unionists were women.

This did not mean that unions automatically supported the right to abortion. Often, a union’s position on this question reflected a broader divide between the left and right of the labour movement. From 1971, for example, the communist-led New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation supported pro-choice demonstrations. By 1974, it fought for abortion leave as well as paternity and maternity leave.

Other unions took longer to update their stance, or wavered after having done so. In 1980, for example, the Commonwealth Public Servant’s Union (CPSU) adopted a pro-choice policy before scrapping it a few years later. In 1982, conservatives within the nurse’s union ran a campaign urging nurses to refuse to assist with abortions as conscientious objectors.

Nevertheless, feminist activism and the growing number of women in the unions built pressure within the labor movement to take a proabortion stance. In the late 1970s, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) supported family planning services. At its 1981 congress, the ACTU passed a motion expressing its support for free, safe, and legal abortion by 528 to votes to 392. The unions’ vast social and political power — exemplified by the mass strikes they led to save Medicare — was a decisive factor in winning and safeguarding abortion rights.

The Fight for Abortion Rights Is Not Over

Although Australian women won access to abortion in the 1970s and early 1980s, in most cases, it was decades before states removed abortion from their criminal codes. And although a right-wing offensive against the right to choose is unlikely in Australia, RTL groups remain active. All the while, access to abortion has declined as out-of-pocket costs have risen, often due to privatization.

However, there’s more to the WLM’s legacy than the right to choose. The WLM went beyond securing legal and political rights for women. They also fought for full social and economic freedom, demanding free, twenty-four-hour child care; fully publicly funded health care; welfare and education; and equal pay, in law and in practice. They fought for a future in which the care work of bringing up the next generation would be borne by society as a whole, and not disproportionately by women. The WLM, at its most radical, fought to liberate women from all oppressive gender and sexual norms. If we want to defend the WLM’s victories today, we should also take inspiration from their utopian vision.