Culture //

A not so bygone era

The battle for reproductive rights is not yet won, writes Sarah Armstrong.


Events in Channel 9’s Love Child seem a world away, with episodes punctuated by the Apollo moon landing and anti-Vietnam war protests. The show, set in the late 1960s, focuses on how forced adoption affects the lives of people involved in a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers, reminiscent of a reform school. While based on true events, the show implies that challenges to reproductive autonomy are being a thing of the past and nothing for us to worry about.

Love Child addresses sexual politics through the eyes of lively young women – hidden away by their families to prevent embarrassment – and a young midwife, Joan, who empathetically works as their advocate in a system stacked against them. Through a collection of fairly standard character tropes the show highlights the pain felt by the mothers of the Senate-estimated 150,000 children forcibly removed between 1951 and 1975 in Australia. It’s an important story to tell, but cannot be seen as the end of the story of reproductive rights, a final chapter in some definitively finished past.

The house matron (played by Manda McElhinney, who is far less likeable in this role than when playing Rhonda in AAMI ads) embodies the conservatism of older generations. She requires penitence from the young women in the house and enjoys the authority she holds over them.

Though television shows often focus on individuals in order to illustrate larger societal issues, the use of the matron as a stand-in for the entire system of oppression detracts from the reality of the situation. In Australian society reports of anything vaguely discriminatory are met with a chorus of voices assuring us that there isn’t really a problem these days, and that these incidences are just the product of a few ‘bad eggs’.

In the first episode a young pregnant woman named Vivian is sedated by her father and taken to the home. She later tells Joan that her mother found her in the process of unsuccessfully attempting to induce miscarriage using several dubious methods.

Even though those days have been largely left behind, abortion isn’t freely available in New South Wales. The Crimes Act continues to penalise obtaining or providing an unlawful abortion, and provides for a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. Court cases in the 1970s clarified that for abortion to be lawful, pregnant people had to satisfy doctors that continuing the pregnancy would cause significant mental or physical harm, and the liberal enforcement of this law has allowed some freedom.

However, the passing of ‘Zoe’s Law’ in the lower house and the rightward shift of the abortion debate in recent years could undermine this progress and limit the freedom of judges to interpret laws in favour of bodily autonomy. With a senator recently describing abortion as a “death industry” and bills importing inflammatory but locally negligible aspects of global abortion debate (such as sex-selective abortions), the issue is far from safely resolved.

Assurances that we’re no longer in the ‘bad old days’ of 1960s abortion rackets and so don’t need to worry at all fail to take into account the less evident, but still very real issues of today. Love Child displays a difficult and astoundingly recent part of Australia’s history of reproductive rights, but it is important that the debate over these rights is not now dismissed as a vestige of last century.