How the Australian version of Roe v Wade, a little-known lawsuit, 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 Texan woman who, in 1970, entered her struggle to end a pregnancy. the US Constitution did not explicitly mention abortion, but implied the right to privacy that extended to reproductive decisions.

For nearly 50 years, that reasoning granted Americans the constitutional right to abortion in the first three months of pregnancy and prevented states from banning them in the second trimester. That is until the same court voted late Saturday to overturn the ruling, allowing individual states to create 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 attending another caseAP: J Scott

Across 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 access to abortion in Australia is “not a matter of partisan political debate”.

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

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In the Australia of the 1950s and ’60s, there was already a nascent campaign for greater reproductive freedom – but unlike the feminist movements that came later, medical professionals were often on the front lines.

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

By the late 1960s, abortions were already commonplace, performed by physicians and non-medical professionals, despite being a criminal offense in all states and territories. Among those who offered abortions was Melbourne gynecologist Ken Davidson.

“He deliberately broke the law to be arrested because he wanted to challenge the violation,” Millar said. In Victoria, she says, very few people were charged with violating the abortion law at the time. “It was one of those crimes that are on the books but not actually enforced.”