1970 to 1980: The adoption crisis

In May 1973, the Commonwealth Government introduced the ‘Supporting Mother’s Benefit’, which aimed to provide financial assistance to ‘unwed mothers’ (Higgins 2010). This coincided with a decrease in the number of adoptions from its peak of almost 10,000 adoptees in 1971–72 to 8,542 in 1972–73.

In 1974, the Status of Children Act was introduced in both Victoria and Tasmania. This Act was created to “remove the legal disabilities of children born out of wedlock”, officially identifying children born from single mothers as ‘ex-nuptial’ as opposed to ‘illegitimate’. Advocacy groups, such as the Council of the Single Mothers and Their Children (CSMC) created in 1969, challenged the stigma of adoption and provided support to single and ‘relinquishing’ mothers.

The contraceptive pill was introduced in 1961 but was generally restricted to married women. Unmarried women could only access the pill if there was an identifiable medical reason. Further, abortion could only be performed if there was a medical necessity. Where this was not the case, abortions were performed illegally by doctors, with large fees as well as substantial risk to women.

From the early 1970s, several social and policy changes made access to contraception and abortion easier to access for all women. Following a combination of reforms to South Australian law in 1969, and judgements in the lower courts of Victoria (1969 Menhennit judgement) and NSW (1972 Levine judgement), the parameters surrounding when a woman could get an abortion widened to include her economic situation. This made abortions more readily available to women. In 1972, the sales tax was removed from the contraceptive pill, and it was included under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. When Medibank Private was introduced in 1976, all family planning services provided by doctors, including abortions, were covered.

These shifting societal and legislative changes set the groundwork for the ‘adoption crisis’, named for the shortage of babies available for adoption (Cuthbert et al. 2010; Quartly et al. 2013). The number of adoptions over this time reflect this ‘shortage’. After the peak in adoption numbers in 197172, adoption numbers decreased 66% from 9,798 to 3,337 in 1979–80.