This week’s debate in the NSW parliament on decriminalising abortion, brought back memories for me of my experience with my first wife Annie in 1971 when she became pregnant at just 19.
We were childhood sweethearts from Bathurst#. We’d both moved to Sydney after finishing school, and having lots of furtive sex, were doing all we could to keep it from her disapproving Catholic parents. Annie had been sent away to boarding school in Moss Vale when a deputation of school nuns intercepted my unrestrained teenage love letters and paid her parents a visit. Annie was close to her mother and despite school being over, felt it would hugely upset her mother if our carnality came out in the open.
I was a second year undergraduate, living in a $5 a week room in a ramshackle Glebe terrace with four friends. I worked as a car park attendant at Wynyard Travelodge at weekends to get a little money to live on. We got our weekly fruit and vegetables at the market at closing time when they were almost being given away##. I had virtually no money in the bank. Annie was working in temporary typing and shorthand jobs, still living at home.
The tailor-made pill
On campus one day in 1971, I saw a poster advertising a talk about “the tailor-made pill” which would be given by Professor Harvey Carey (1917-1989), Head of the School of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of New South Wales and an early pioneer in the development of the oral contraceptive pill which had first become available in Australian in 1962. He was recruiting women for his work involved trialing changing doses with a focus on adverse side effects and contraceptive effectiveness as the outcomes of interest. The pitch was that he’d tailor-make a pill for each woman that was effective and would minimize any side-effects. Here (from 24m38s) is an extended interview with him.
Annie and I both went along to the talk, hoping to put condoms behind us. We felt lucky to be able to be in the hands of a leading researcher. It would also be free, a big consideration for us in our penury. Annie signed up and was on the pill for most of 1971.
In November that year, we got married. We were both only 19, full of plans for finishing university at the end of 1972 and then setting out to explore the world. Her parents were very comfortably off and while we felt we were ridiculously young to be getting married, it was likely that a decision to live together would deeply anger them (mine were counseling that we should just live together, something I found out late in life they had always done – they never married). Her father was a self-made, determined man and we thought it possible he might even disown her, and break her mother’s heart. A decision to marry, we thought, might also see some sort of leg-up gift to help us out for a few years until we started earning.
We were married in the registry office opposite St Mary’s catholic cathedral in Sydney at 11am. In keeping with the haut couture of the time, I’d bought a dapper three piece suit and purple shirt and tie and at 9am had gone to a fashionable Italian barber in the Menzies Arcade to have my 1970s hippie tresses washed and blow-dried (picture). Our parents, siblings and her aunt and uncle adjourned to solemn, mostly unsmiling lunch at the Wentworth Hotel in Phillip Street. It felt a little like a funeral, more than a wedding.
Mid-afternoon we went up to the hotel room her parents had bought for us for the night and, quite bizarrely, her father took a photograph of us standing next to the bed.
When he left, we began to get into bed but then Annie realized that her supply of the pill had finished. She had bad tonsillitis with a slight temperature, so called up Carey’s clinic at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Paddington to see if it was OK if I could go up and collect a renewal. So on my wedding day, I splashed out and caught a bus up to Paddington, sat in the waiting room till the tailored pill supply was put together, and then caught the bus back to the honeymoon suite. I’d proudly told the receptionist that it was my wedding day.
Annie took one look at the strip of pills I’d been given and immediately said they were the wrong ones. The colours of the pills, or their sequence was not the same as those she had been using all year. She called up the clinic, but it was too late. They had closed for the day.
A couple of months later, Annie became pregnant. The changed colours of the pills suddenly took on a different meaning. Annie recalled telling the receptionist some months earlier that she was getting married in September. The receptionist took interest in this. Annie recalls her asking about the wedding date and noting it on her file. I had mentioned it when I fetched the new supply on the wedding day.
Carey’s work was very much about finding evidence about threshold doses that effectively prevented conception. He “developed the ‘Roman Catholic pill’ which did not suppress ovulation but rather regulated it to a particular time in the ovulation cycle”, so may have had connections to the church. We heard publicity about this at the time and wondered whether he had taken a decision to vary Annie’s dose from the time that her file would have flagged that her status was now changed to married. If this is what occurred, it was never discussed with her. And of course would have never had her consent.
Getting an abortion in 1971
Barely being out of childhood ourselves, we had no interest in having a child at 19, while still at university, with no jobs, an imminent one-bedroomed rented flat in a Randwick shack, even with $5000 in the bank (the wedding present). We were not remotely ready to have a child, which was why we used contraception. In those days, to get an abortion you had to be assessed by a doctor, an obstetrician and a psychiatrist who together would certify whether there was any threat to the health of the mother. As expected, the doctor and the obstetrician both said there was no evidence that Annie could not have a baby. So the psychiatrist’s report was going to be critical.
We made contact with a network of feminists who recommended a psychiatrist known to be sympathetic to women seeking abortions. Annie went to see him and explained the circumstances of the pregnancy and our situation, but mostly to simply explain that we wanted to make the decision when we would have a child. The psychiatrist, a man, listened to this and then said “I’m sorry but nothing you have told me would allow me to make any recommendation that your mental health was at risk by a pregnancy”.
At this Annie became upset and cried. The psychiatrist then said “ah, that’s what I need. I can now see that you are very upset.” He provided a recommendation and Annie had the abortion soon afterwards. This humiliating farce was what women who were able to connect with such agents had to go through if they wanted a termination. Many without such connections would have had dangerous backyard abortions.
The women we had spoken to were very keen that we raise hell about what had happened. We declined, being apprehensive about the consequences of going public in those very different days. But later told our story on an ABC documentary series [name forgotten but being looked for].
Our fully planned and much loved son Joe was born in 1982 (pictured with Annie and my late parents in 1983).