How Australia’s version of Roe v Wade, a little-known court case, set a national precedent for reproductive rights

Around the world, two words — Roe v Wade — have become synonymous with the right to reproductive freedom.

The Roe in question is Jane McCorvey, a Texas woman who took her fight to be able to terminate a pregnancy to the courts in 1970. In a landmark ruling on the case in 1973, a 7-2 majority of Supreme Court judges found that while the US constitution did not explicitly mention abortion, it did imply the right to privacy which extended to reproductive decisions.

For almost 50 years, that reasoning granted Americans the constitutional right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy and prevented states from prohibiting them in the second trimester. That is until the same court voted to overturn the ruling late on Saturday, allowing individual states to make their own abortion laws.

Norma McCorvey and her attorney Gloria Allred leave the Supreme Court in 1989
Norma McCorvey and her attorney Gloria Allred leave the Supreme Court building after sitting in on another case(AP: J Scott)

From the other side of the world, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described the move as a “setback for women and their right to control their own bodies” and reiterated that in Australia abortion access “is not a matter for partisan political debate”.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the years preceding Roe v Wade, another lesser-known case on abortion access was heard before the Victorian Supreme Court — and it paved the way for reproductive rights in Australia.

Introducing the Menhennitt ruling

In 1950 and ’60s Australia, a burgeoning campaign for greater reproductive freedom was already underway — but unlike the feminist movements that came later, medical professionals were often on the frontline.

“This was basically on the grounds that unsafe abortion could be very dangerous,” says Dr Erica Millar, an expert on abortion provision in Australia at La Trobe University. “And they were sick of dealing with patients with complications of abortion and also thinking about the real toll it takes on a person.”

By the late ’60s, abortions were already common place, undertaken by doctors and non-medical professionals, despite it being a criminal offence in all states and territories. Among those offering abortions was Melbourne gynaecologist Ken Davidson.

“He was kind of flouting the law deliberately in order to get arrested because he wanted to challenge the offence,” Millar says. In Victoria at the time, she says, very few people were actually charged with breaking the law on abortion. “It was one of those crimes that are on the books, but not really enforced.”

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