Corrupt cops, crooked docs, prevaricating pollies and 'mad radicals' : a history of abortion law reform in Victoria, 1959-1974
Author(s)Gregory, Robyn V.
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AbstractThis dissertation explores the history of abortion law reform in Victoria between 1959 and 1974, contextualised in a feminist politics of reproduction. The aim of the research is to investigate the extent to which the history of abortion law reform in this state can be understood as part of the struggle of women for sexual self-determination and hence for full citizenship. As a result, one of the principal objectives of the thesis is to analyse the basis on which abortion is available in Victoria. The research draws on historical data, using the records of relevant contemporary organisations, the press, and interviews with some of the key people involved in advocating abortion law reform. In particular, the dissertation documents the abortion law reform experiences and struggles of Victorian women, including the attempts they made to contest their historic exclusion from participation in policy formulation and legislation related to reproduction. It begins with t he consolidation of the Crimes Act in 1958 and ends in 1974'with the passing of the national health and associated bills, which ensured public funding for abortion procedures. Social, political and economic changes in the preceding century led to overwhelming public support for abortion law reform in line with changing social mores and advances in reproductive science. But this did not result in legislative change enacted by a responsive and democratic government. Rather, the history of abortion law reform in Victoria is shown to be a case study of conflict, co-operation, co-option and collusion in five main arenas of vested interest. The first of these was state interest in fertility control, and thus women's sexual behaviour, as a reflection of national concerns about the size and composition of the Australian population. The second was a struggle for industrial control of a lucrative abortion industry, supported by systemic police corruption, medical corruption and collusion by politicians and officers of the Crown Law Department. The third factor was the political manoeuvring of a government determined to retain power by framing abortion as a medical rather than a legislativ e problem. Conflict between community calls for abortion law reform to protect doctors from prosecution on the one hand, and a political requirement for preference votes from the Democratic Labor Party on the other, was resolved in favour of the latter. The fourth factor was the professional struggle for medical control over reproduction, supported by civil liberties activists and liberal feminists seeking access to abortion without engaging in questions of political control over decision-making. The struggle by an increasingly organised feminist movement to reframe abortion as a political issue related to women's sexual self-determination, expressed as control over reproductive decision-making, was the final factor. As such, the dissertation is as much a case study of the factors at play in attempting to effect change in a capitalist patriarchy, as it is about abortion law reform per se. The thesis is organised within a historical framework that provides both an overview of the time period under consideration and a detailed account of the various struggles that took place within that period. The chapters are set out around the key events that shaped and were shaped by the struggle for law reform. These include the Menhennitt Ruling in 1969, the Kaye Inquiry into police corruption in 1970, the Medical Practices Clarification Bill in federal parliament in 1973 and the Proposed Abortion Inquiry in state parliament in 1973. I focus on those groups that had control over abortion policy and practice, as well as the main groups that worked to influence those bodies. These include churches, the media, political parties, and social movements - in particular the actions and attitudes of civil liberties and feminist groups. The conclusion locates the history of abortion law reform within the current socio-political and economic context, encouraging an examination of contemporary questions regarding women's control over reproductive decision-making. This includes an exploration of whether sexual self-determination and the human rights necessary to achieve full citizenship are possible for women given the deleterious impact ofneo-liberal ideology on funding those programs and policies that work towards equality, rather than 'choice', and freedom from oppression, rather than individual 'rights'.