Contraception and reproduction in Australia’s past (or: please don’t try these methods at home)

Lisa Featherstone discusses contraception and reproduction in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Australia, a period of high anxieties about national reproductive imperatives.  

By the mid-1880s, the birth-rate had begun to fall across women from all classes in white Australian society. This was surprising, as it was notoriously difficult to get information on contraception, and there were no scientific advances in birth control. Beyond abstinence, there was no effective form of contraception available for women. How did women begin to control their fertility? And why did the seemingly private act of contraception cause such a public furore in Australian society, at the very moment when we were emerging as a new nation?

Contraception in the Bedroom

It is likely that that most couples turned to coitus interruptus (commonly known as withdrawal) as their main contraceptive method. It was, after all, free, requiring only compliance from both partners. While it was not necessarily the most effective form of contraceptive, it was far better than nothing, and would reduce the average woman’s pregnancies over her childbearing years.

Condom by Bell & Croyden around 1900 made from an animal membrane. Image courtesy of Science Museum London.

But beyond withdrawal, what were the options for women and men? There were some mechanical means, including condoms made of skin, fish bladders, animal intestines or thick rubber. French letters, as they were known, were expensive, but made more economical by washing and reusing the sheath several times. They were not very popular, however. Aesthetics aside, condoms were too closely associated with prostitution and sexually transmitted disease to appeal to the contracepting husband and wife.

Most couples preferred contraceptives used by women, including many that were quite invasive. Some women used a sponge, inserted before sex and soaked in quinine, lemon juice or some other astringent, designed to block and kill spermatozoa. Women who relied on sponges or pessaries may have found they were harsh on the female body, as they contained sterilizing agents such as corrosive sublimate.

Others tried post-coital douching, when women injected fluid containing vinegar or quinine via a syringe or irrigator into the vaginal passage. This was not practical for many Australian families, as there was no access to water in many working-class homes. Yet women were reported as using all manner of disinfectants as enemas or douches. Lysol, a form of carbolic acid, was frequently used. Other women used alcohol, alum or sulphate of zinc in injections. There was an air of desperation to some of these forms of birth control.

Late-nineteenth-century advertisement for the use of Beecham’s Pills as an abortifacient. The suggestive text at the bottom notes that the pills ‘assist nature in her wondrous functions’. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Other methods of contraception that were recommended – even by maverick doctors – were simply incorrect, and would have led inevitably to pregnancy. Non-conformist doctors who published lucrative popular self-help texts often slipped in a section on birth control, no doubt adding to their appeal and sales. These texts promoted quite dubious methods of contraception. Some promoted a ‘common’ method, whereby women cough after sex to release the sperm! It was even suggested that sitting up immediately after sex might reduce conception.

Doctors also discussed the so-called ‘safe time’ method, but miscalculated the safe and fertile periods. It was advised that conception could be avoided by abstinence until the fourteenth day after the cessation of the menses. This – unfortunately for several generations of Australian women – placed the “safe” time in women’s most fertile period.

For some women who fell pregnant, abortion was their only choice, and termination appears to have been a common life event for many women in Australia’s past. Patent medicines and abortifacient pills were advertised widely in the press, and were sold to restore the menstrual flow, to clear blockages or to remove obstructions. If drugs failed, however, women turned to abortionists including local women, fortune-tellers, midwives, nurses and doctors. Surgical abortion was probably a last resort, as it was costly.

Some women also learned to abort themselves, perforating the uterus with a range of household implements. Many abortions were successful and performed without any complications, but there were certainly dangers. At worst, the uterus could be punctured, leading to blood loss and death, or a woman could suffer an infection that could be deadly in these pre-antibiotic days. Ultimately however, the risks were worthwhile to many women, desperate to avoid another pregnancy.

Responses from the Public Sphere

Despite the enthusiastic adoption of birth control by women, the use of contraception and abortion was strongly condemned by all Australian authorities. At the turn of the century, population control was seen as a direct threat to the colonies and to the new Australian nation. The fear of invasion from Asia cannot be underestimated in these years: the best defence against attack was seen to be a large and sturdy population. All key social, political and economic figures agreed that reproduction was central to the maintenance of white Australia.

In 1903 and 1904, the state government established the Royal Commission into the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales, the first inquiry of its kind in the world. The Report of the Royal Commission unequivocally linked the use of contraception and abortion to the deterioration of the nation. In particular, the Commissioners were vitriolic in their condemnation of women as ‘selfish’ in choosing to limit families.

White Australia badge from the Australian Natives Association, 1910. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Doctors were central to the censure of birth control, and almost all mainstream doctors refused to countenance any methods of contraception. Abstinence – euphemistically known as a separate bedroom – might be recommended only as a very last resort, perhaps in cases of serious illness such as advanced heart disease, recent syphilis, consumption, paralysis or insanity. Reproduction was so vital to an understanding of womanhood and women’s bodies that childbearing should only be avoided in the most severe cases: the obstetrician Andrew Watson-Munro claimed it was only to ‘save the life of the mother’ that he would recommend separate rooms.

Doctors also claimed that birth control would cause disease. The President of the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association Dr Michael O’Sullivan viewed the use of contraceptives as the main cause of ill-health amongst Australian women:

Why is it, somebody asks, that most women under forty are sick, or sickly? … It is because, living in luxurious indolence, they cannot allow the duties of maternity to disturb their social pleasures; or perhaps, weighed down by shiftless poverty, they dread the devastating crowd of unwanted children.

As a Catholic, he believed that the use of birth control was a sin that would bring its own retribution. Opposition to birth control, however, not merely religious, but based on scientific rationales, and many doctors agreed that it was women’s duty to bear and raise children, for the nation state.

A demographic revolution

At the very start of the Australian nation in 1901, reproduction was at the core of debates in Australian cultural and political life, with ever-present discussion over women’s bodies, maternity and how a white woman might best reproduce for herself, her family and for her country.

Yet while the public world stressed the importance of a large and vital population, the declining birth rate resulted from negotiations within individual families. In private, husbands and wives were restricting their reproduction, and the agency of women was paramount. It was difficult to source information on birth control and abortion – and even then, some of the information was patently incorrect. Despite the odds, women managed to reduce their individual pregnancies, leading to a population shift so substantial that it has been termed a demographic revolution.


Lisa Featherstone is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland. Her latest book Sex Crimes in the Fifties with Andy Kaladelfos was recently shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Awards. Lisa has published widely on sexuality, masculinity, childbirth, medicine and child health. She is currently the chief investigator on an ARC discovery project, ‘Sexual Offences, Legal Responses and Public Perceptions: 1880s-1980s’, with Andy KaladelfosCarolyn Strange and Nina Westera.


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