“A Virtual Declaration of War on the Unborn” – The 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships and Abortion: a Contentious Issue

The Royal Commission on Human Relationships was a venture of the Whitlam Government, as all good things from the 1970s were. The aim of the Commission was “To inquire into and report upon the family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships, so far as those matters are relevant to the powers and functions of the Australian Parliament and Government”.[1] Arguably, one of the biggest – and most controversial – matters relevant to parliament and the government at this time was the issue of abortion!

While the Commission was formed only forty years ago, Australia in the 1970s was very different (and by different I mean more ‘conservative’) than what it is today. While there were slight differences and exceptions in each individual state, abortion was for the most part illegal. A woman could not make the choice herself, it would need to be decided by a doctor – and in some states two doctors – if the women was fit or not to continue with her pregnancy. Of course there were sympathetic doctors, found mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, but there were also doctors who would turn desperate women away. There were also women who would not even seek the help of a doctor in the first place, given the social stigma surrounding taboos such as pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancies and abortion. This meant that a woman would rather seek the services of a backyard abortionist or even self-abort (both extremely unsafe!) than risk her unwanted pregnancy being found out. Jeannie Dempsey, who was 21 and single when she fell pregnant from a casual partner in 1969, described her options as “suicide… getting rid of it or coming clean to everyone and going into a-you know St Joseph’s House or whatever and having it… it came down to suicide or abortion.”[2]

Jeannie was from South Australia, and ended up flying to Sydney to secretly procure her abortion, from what she thought was a doctor. However the procedure was performed in the back room of a villa in Maroubra… and was hardly a sanitary doctor’s office. Her story is just one of many that reflected the need for liberalised abortion laws. However the Royal Commission saw testimony from those who would deny such a need; in their view abortion did reflect the needs of the community. One such testimony was from Rev. Alan Nichols, from the Church of England Diocese of Sydney, who spoke to the Commission on the 19th November 1975. It was his belief that abortion services, both counselling and the clinics, were not wanted or needed, “It concerns us that the government initiates support, which really amounts to social change, and we are not sure there is a demand for that kind of social change.”[3] However, Jeannie Dempsey, and the 60,000 other women annually who seek abortions,[4] would beg to differ.

A witness who would also challenge Rev. Nichol’s assessment of the issue was Dr. Dorothy Nolan. Dr. Nolan was the medical director of the newly established Preterm Foundation in Sydney, who provided services such as first trimester abortions, counselling, and contraceptive and family planning advice. Preterm sought to fulfill both a societal need and to educate the community, to create public awareness of the issue, “So often it is noted on our sheets that women are so glad to know about such an organisation. They have never heard about it before and they say, “Why is it not more generally known?””[5] Despite what Rev. Nichols would have the Commission believe, Dr. Nolan’s testimony showed that social change was in fact something that was needed by the community. Silencing and moralising the issues of abortion, and sex generally speaking, was not the answer – rather it increased the incidence of unsafe and illegal abortion practices.

Dr. Nolan and Rev. Nichols are just two examples of the numerous testimonies given to the Commission on the issue of abortion, but two that capture the polarising nature of the topic. Abortion was still viewed in a moral light by many, a societal ill and a catalyst for corruption. However there were just as many who challenged these old-fashioned views; abortion was an undeniable reality and one that could not simply be moralised away. It was happening for a reason, and in some cases illegally, and therefore it was an issue that needed to be addressed. It is clear to see, why then that the issue of abortion was a constant theme during the life of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships.

Further Reading

Arrow, Michelle. “Public Intimacies: The Royal Commission on Human Relationships 1974-1977.” In Acts of Love and Lust: Sexuality in Australia from 1945-2010, edited by Lisa Featherstone, Rebecca Jennings and Robert Reynolds. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

Baird, Barbara. “I had one too…” An Oral History of Abortion in South Australia Before 1970. Flinders University South Australia: Women’s Study Unit, 1990.

Evatt, Elizabeth Felix Arnott and Anne Deveson. Royal Commission on Human Relationships Final Report. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1977.

Royal Commission on Human Relationships: Official Transcripts of Proceedings. Sydney: Commonwealth Reporting Service, 1977.

References

[1] Elizabeth Evatt, Felix Arnott and Anne Deveson, Royal Commission on Human Relationships Final Report Volume 1 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1977), p. ix.

[2] Barbara Baird, “I had one too…” An Oral History of Abortion in South Australia Before 1970 (Flinders University South Australia: Women’s Study Unit, 1990), p. 41.

[3] Rev. Alan Nichols, testimony, 19 November 1975, Royal Commission on Human Relationships: Official Transcripts of Proceedings: p. 2518.

[4] Evatt, Final Report Volume 4, p. 115.

[5] Dr. Dorothy Nolan, testimony, 19 November 1975, Royal Commission on Human Relationships: Official Transcripts of Proceedings: p. 2542.

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2 comments on ““A Virtual Declaration of War on the Unborn” – The 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships and Abortion: a Contentious Issue

  1. ashartman says:

    You were really informative, and I loved the conversational tone. I didn’t know about doctors being able to choose to abort a child, but I guess it’s kind of similar to what still happens in some American states- the kind of thing where women have no legal right over their own bodies. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be driven to self-abortion, it sounds like one of the most terrifying things possible. I find it really interesting that the debate which took place during the commission is still going on, it’s strange to think that although we have progressed as a society that there are still some issues which we are stuck on over 40 years later.

  2. dowie101 says:

    I really liked your opening line, and as a male who has probably ignored any abortion debate it is incredible to see how different views are from the 70s to now. While there are probably still religious figures that would agree with Rev. Nichols (and also some PMs!) it really is frustrating to see the lengths that some women went to for support, advice and help. The changes that this inquiry produced and the options now available for all are huge indicators of how important this was. A fantastic piece and really well done.

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