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Unwanted pregnancies


This was a time before ‘the pill’ or IUDs.  Men used (or not) condoms and married women used diaphragms.   But these things were generally not discussed, except in the Roman Catholic Church, where they were vilified; the work of the Devil. 

There was still a running battle between Australian born Christians - ostensibly about the status of the Pope; the transubstantiation of the host (wine and bread becoming flesh); and some creatively introduced non-biblical sacraments (like extreme unction).  This nonsense apparently required some local children to physically attack each other; hurl abuse; and make ridiculous claims about the other's prospect of an afterlife.  But of course it was actually about class and a sense of past injustice; particularly among those of Irish decent.

During this decade Roman Catholicism grew much more rapidly than the protestant denominations from around 20% to 25% of Christians; due to mainly to Southern European immigration.  The 50's were a golden period for Christianity.

Since that time the proportion of Christians has declined and with it church attendance as: non-believers; Buddhism (now the second largest faith); and other less popular religions (like Islam, Hinduism and Judaism) took greater hold.  

Cultural diversity and cultural evolution have taken us a long way from the Australia of the 1954 Census; when more people reported a Christian faith than had in the preceeding two decades; or ever since.


2011 Census of Population and Housing data
- released in June 2012 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)

Christianity remained the most commonly reported religion in Australia with 61.1 per cent of the population reporting affiliation with a Christian religion – a decline from 63.9 per cent in 2006.

There was an increase in the number of people not reporting a Christian faith from 36.1 per cent of the population in 2006 to 38.9 per cent in 2011.

The number of people reporting 'No religion' increased significantly, from 18.7 per cent of the population in 2006 to 22.3 per cent in 2011.

The most common non-Christian religions in 2011 were Buddhism (accounting for 2.5 per cent of the population), Islam (2.2 per cent) and Hinduism (1.3 per cent). 

ABS Media Release 


But unwanted pregnancy was not entirely a religious issue.

Post war fertility rates were generally very high in Australia and worldwide.

Although this seems unbelievable today, many young girls were so ignorant of sexual matters that they didn't know how babies were conceived and were alarmed instead of celebrating, as girls do today, when they first menstruated.  This appalling lack of education, and contraception, led to the inevitable outcome. 

Women gossiped; men, particularly those who believed themselves upright and moral Christians, condemned.  Pregnant daughters risked being 'cast out' by angry fathers.

It was generally accepted that the best option was a 'shotgun wedding' but this was not always possible. The class system and religious differences were still major barriers to marriage. 

As is still true even today; some innocent girls had been 'groomed' by an older man; a relative or friend of the family. 

If a girl could be proven to have 'slept around' a boy could simply deny paternity.  Genetic testing was forty years in the future. 

Many children born to unmarried girls were spirited away to church run children’s homes or for adoption; resulting in another of the many apologies for the past that seem to be an everyday occurrence today.

It was not uncommon for a girl’s mother, often quite young themselves, to pass off their daughter’s child as their own. 

The issue of adoption was sometimes quite confusing.  There was a general debate about telling children that they were adopted.  One classmate had a cousin who turned out to be his sister.  Others had siblings who turned out to be their mother, aunt or uncle.  Quite a few didn't know about this until they were adults and wanted a birth certificate or passport. 

Peter and I were relatively well informed little boys.  We had discovered our mother’s diaphragm quite early but didn't know its purpose for some time.

Most children at Thornleigh Public School had seen dogs mating; and other animals as well.  Something about the playground seemed to suggest it to be a good location to the local dogs. They frequently had to be chased-off by the Headmaster or a teacher with a bucket of water. I remember arguing with another boy about whether humans did it the same way; I was wrong. 

Boys at school also knew about condoms (frenchies) and so our father, concerned about misinformation, gave Peter and I more details; long before the infamously uninformative 'Farther and Son' sex education nights in high school. These simply stressed the risks of extramarital sex and failed to provide any information about effective contraception or human fertility cycles; except that our mothers or sisters may be emotional or less rational on a monthly basis.

Thornleigh station waiting room featured posters about syphilis and gonorrhea, listing horrendous symptoms and outcomes; including bits falling off, madness and death.  Under the footbridge was a big billboard featuring a frowning woman, fingers to her brow, advertising Vincents APC - For the pain you can't explain.  Every train journey a lesson in the facts of life.  What's that daddy?

We soon became aware, when getting our hair cut, that the local barber sold condoms ‘under the counter’ to men who didn't want to be seen buying them at the chemist.  The barber was also an ‘SP (starting price) bookie’, taking illegal bets on horses and dogs.  So it was often hard to determine what he was up to when the clippers stopped giving someone a 'short back and sides' long enough for him to serve some furtive customer from behind his little counter; with it's display of cut-throat razors and shaving brushes.

He more openly sold cigarettes and tobacco; a good cover for his more illicit sales:  ‘A packet of Craven A; ten bob to place on no 5 in the second at Randwick; and a Frenchy; please mate’. 'That'll be fifteen and six'. 'Thanks!'

I loved the ‘Craven A’ cigarette posters at the Barber’s.  The original was a beautiful, sophisticated woman.  It bore the slogan: ‘Craven A, they never vary’.  This was later joined by a new one with a girl in a swimsuit at the beach.  It said:  ‘Craven A, better than ever’.   I think he was expected to take the old one down. 

Visiting the Thornleigh barber was like visiting the world of Orwell’s 1984: Victory Cigarettes – better than ever - and always have been.

Apart from adoption and contraception; abortion provided another option.  In movies in the 50's and 60's abortion was usually only hinted at; but it never turned out well.  If the heroine or fallen angle didn't die from it she suffered dreadful repercussions.  But these 'moral tales' did not reflect the real situation.  Reputedly some women used abortion regularly as a means of birth control.

More worldly women, often married with children, obtained a 'D&C' from a professional gynaecologist in a hospital soon after they realised they were pregnant. This was the preserve of those with knowledge; good connections; a big check-book; and who could be relied upon to be discrete. 

Others were condemned to 'procure' a backyard abortionist, apocryphally with a sharpened knitting needle or wire coat-hanger.  This was often later in the pregnancy as an abortion could take time to arrange and many sexually naive girls didn't realise that they were pregnant, or just prayed they weren't, for several months.  There were many women, and not a few male doctors, who provided this service relatively cheaply to these girls.  In the movies this was usually at the cost of a fur coat or jewellery; obtained for favours given.

About 30 maternal deaths a year resulted in Sydney.  Stark black and white photographs of some 'back-yard abortionist' being dragged off would be splashed across the evening papers: The Sun and/or The Daily Mirror.  The accompanying report always carefully avoided explicit language that might lead to we children gaining any real knowledge of these secret adult matters; to 'protect' us.  Thus ignorance was perpetuated.

As abortion was illegal, accurate figures on the number procured are impossible to obtain.  Based on the present numbers of legal abortions (estimated ten years ago at around 100,000 pa in Australia - with some uncertainty due to the morning-after-pill) then taking the lower population, higher fertility post war and lack of alternative contraceptive measures into consideration, suggests that around ten thousand abortions were carried out in Sydney each year. This is very close to the rate estimated to be still the norm in countries where abortion remains illegal: three to four deaths per thousand.

Obviously some unqualified abortionists became quite skilled, as over 90% of abortions were medically uneventful; contrary to the movie version.  But late-term abortions are increasingly problematic; not just on physical medical grounds. There is increasing psychological damage to the mother the longer she nurtures the growing foetus; in addition to the moral issue around the death of a potential human with a developing brain. 

As I got older and went to University I learned of girls who had illegal abortions and knew several others who had chosen to have their child.  One who elected abortion suffered serious consequences including: high-level emotional distress, very high financial cost, fear of potential prosecution for murder and what was close to blackmail by a family member.  Those who completed the pregnancy suffered even greater hardships, including forced marriage to someone they couldn't stand, resulting in domestic violence; alienation from their family; loss of prospects and career hopes; and in one case forced separation from her child. 

I became a strong advocate of legalised abortion and I firmly believe that history has vindicated this stance.

There are now very few late term abortions in Australia, almost all for excellent medical reasons.  It is now extremely safe.  The risk of maternal death due to abortion is now less than one death per hundred thousand.  The risk to a mother of carrying her baby to full-term is far higher. 

On the other hand, the risks to society of an unwanted child, and the risks to that child, let alone the mother, are incalculable.  Every child has a right to be wanted.

Couples and single women who want children try very hard to have them; as the increasing demand for IVF and surrogacy clearly demonstrates. There is no evidence that the ready availability of contraception, and if that fails abortion, reduces the number of wanted children.

World population is now consuming resources at an unsustainable rate and human fertility needs to decline.  But the recent decline is neither due to this concern nor to abortion.  It is due to obvious sociological changes, particularly in the status of women, since the post-war world of the 1950s.

In just a few years from those uncompromising days, the contraceptive pill would become available and with it a sweeping cultural change; including greater female emancipation and the ‘sexual revolution’.   

The pill was widely accepted, even by otherwise strongly practicing Roman Catholics.   When two of our Catholic friends were about to marry another friend asked them point-blank it they would be using contraception.  He immediately said no but she said, in the spirit of the times: ’If you expect me to be a baby-machine you’ve got another thing coming’.  They eventually had two.   The baby-boomers got what they wanted yet again!





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