Anti-Abortion Campaigning and the Political Process

By Ainsley Symons

In an interview on Melbourne radio station 3AW before the coming federal elections in 1984 the indefatigable anti-abortion campaigner Margaret Tighe referred specifically to two Victorian candidates for the House of Representatives. They were David McKenzie, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) candidate for the electorate of Menzies, and Tony Lamb, the ALP candidate for Streeton. Mrs Tighe said that both candidates were "most unsuitable" (emphasised and in a raised voice) to be members of the federal parliament.

What would cause Mrs Tighe to be so upset at the possibility that these two candidates might be successful in their electorates? The reason for her anger was their action as back-benchers in the lower house during the first term of the Whitlam government in 1973. They presented to the House the Medical Practice Clarification Bill which, if passed, would have legalised abortion in the Australian Capital Territory, but not in any of the states, for any extension of the Bill to include the states would be ultra vires under Section 51 of the Australian Constitution.

The McKenzie-Lamb Bill, as it became popularly known, aroused support from feminists, but angst from a large number of politically active Roman Catholics. At the time a majority of Australians, according to opinion poll surveys, did not support unrestricted access to abortion (Betts 2004: 23). The Bill was defeated in the House, with all members of the Coalition voting against it, and the ALP split. The vote on 10 May 1973 was 98 to 23. Feminists argued that the all-male House discriminated against women, but the vote might not have been much different had there been a number of female parliamentarians at that time, even a significant number. Right to Life (RTL) campaigners lobbied every member of federal parliament, and their campaigning was very effective.

Abortion had previously been decriminalised, subject to strict conditions, in South Australia under legislation passed by the Liberal government of Steele Hall in December 1969. There are significantly less Roman Catholics in South Australia than in any other state, and this made passage of such legislation easier. In recent years evangelical Protestants, such as Uniting Church minister the Rev. Fred Nile in New South Wales and Pastor Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministries in Victoria, have resulted in large numbers of non-Catholics joining the anti-abortion cause in big numbers, but in the early years of RTL activity in the cause was overwhelmingly Catholic.

In Victoria, as in the United States, it was the courts rather than the legislature that was instrumental in abortion law reform. In the United States the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) provided that no state could disallow abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. The Supreme Court ruling of Justice Menhennit in Victoria (1969) likewise allowed abortion in circumstances that had previously been criminalised. In the late 1960s Victorian medical doctor Bertram Wainer led a campaign against corruption involving illegal backyard abortionists that led to an Inquiry by Barry Beach, QC. Wainer's campaigning was an influence, but we will never know to what extent, in the decision of the Victorian Supreme Court. The Menhennit ruling in R. v. Davidson (1969) found that a procedure to terminate a pregnancy was not illegal if the act done was honestly believed on reasonable grounds to be necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or her physical or mental health. The Menhennit ruling set a precedent for abortions in Victoria that persisted over many years. In 1972 Wainer's supporters established the Fertility Control Clinic, an abortion facility in East Melbourne, a site of frequent RTL protests from its establishment until the present.

Margaret Tighe has led the anti-abortion movement for much of the period from the 1970s. She has campaigned against parliamentarians of all parties regarded as favourable to abortion. Limited financial resources have meant that the RTL cause has had to limit those parliamentarians it targeted. It has had some notable successes, one being the 1980 defeat of Barry Simon, the pro-choice Liberal member for the federal lower house seat of Latrobe in Gippsland.

The resignation of Premier Steve Bracks in 2007 sowed the seeds for abortion reform by legislation that parliamentarians had previously refused to support, fearing an RTL backlash. Bracks, a Catholic of Lebanese descent, almost certainly would not have allowed abortion legislation into the parliament, but his successor John Brumby did not share this view. Candy Broad, an upper house member for the Northern Victoria region in the Legislative Council, did just this. Her Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008, subsequently passed by the parliament, codified the Menhennit ruling and even went further, allowing termination of pregnancy in late term.

The passage of the Broad Bill, while rejoiced by the feminist lobby and Emily's List, a group of pro-abortion female parliamentarians, caused much resentment among RTL supporters. Pastor Nalliah (Feneley 2009), for example, claimed that the Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009, causing the loss of 173 lives, including high profile television presenter and news reader Brian Naylor, were God's vengeance for the passage of Victoria's pernicious abortion laws. Margaret Tighe and like-minded RTL campaigners targeted nine supporters of the Broad Bill at the 2010 election. In the Right to Life blog (Tighe 2013), she cited an analysis in the Tasmanian Times (Allan 2010) that concluded, "The pro-life movement can claim that without its support the Baillieu government would not have been elected." The 2010 state election in Victoria, which resulted in a narrow victory for the Coalition under Ted Baillieu, may well be the most significant achievement of the RTL movement. That victory did not result in changes to the Broad Act.


Lyle Allan, "Margaret Tighe, The Most Powerful Woman in Victoria," Tasmanian Times, 30 November, 2010. Consulted 13 February 2014.

Katharine Betts, "Attitudes to Abortion in Australia, 1972 to 2003," People and Place, 12: 4, 2004.

Rick Feneley, "Pastor's abortion dream inflames bushfire tragedy," Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February, 2009. Consulted 13 February 2014

Margaret Tighe, "Tighe Calls on Napthine," Right to Life blog, 2013. Consulted 13 February 2014.