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Discourses on sexuality: the modern abortion debate

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posted on 2022-03-28, 18:07 authored by Karen Coleman
This thesis examines discourses on abortion in Australia in the period between the 1960s and 1985 as a primary issue in the politics of sexuality. Rather than setting out to demonstrate the applicability of any one major theoretical framework, it draws on work by three writers on the politics of sexuality - Kate Millet, Michel Foucault, and Jeffrey Weeks - for theoretical and thematic insights. All discourses have a history and to understand their efficacy, and the grip that they acquire as knowledges which can be deployed to strategic ends, these histories need to be traced. Accordingly, primary elements in the discursive formation which constitutes the modern abortion debate have been historically contextualised. An examination of the report of the 1904 Royal Commission into the Birth Rate yields valuable insights into a number of primary discursive themes already brought to attention by Millet, Foucault or Weeks; the discourse of foetal right to life is traced to its genesis in the Catholic Church; the stigma against illegitimacy is identified as circuitously giving rise to the first legislation against abortion; the ways in which women's sexuality has been conceptualised in the modern era is shown to have developed with the transition from the Galenic model of physiology. The nature of the silence shielding abortion from public discourse in the decades prior to the 1960s is investigated as are factors operating to maintain that silence. The period from when it become subject to public debate and controversy to 1985 is divided into that which covers the conflict leading to legal reform and that which deals with the normalisation of abortion practice and the backlash against it from antiabortionists. All of the discourses deployed over this time, as they are represented in the press media and parliamentary debate, are articulated in detail with the links between them and other relevant discursive formations demonstrated. To contextualise these, public conflicts and struggles over abortion are examined in depth. It becomes apparent that how abortion is discursified and dealt with at the formal political level can be properly understood only by taking account of intra and inter party and electoral politics, that is, that the outcomes of conflicts involving governments and politicians are a function, not of the internal dynamics of the abortion issue itself, but of governments and politicians pursuing quite separate agendas and interests. The final chapter broadens to an examination of the Moral New Right in Australia and to discourses propounded by it on a range of sexual issues. Feminism is perceived by it to be an arch-enemy: its support for contraception and abortion to be largely responsible for a deterioration in adolescent sexual conduct; its commitment to gender equality for the breakdown of the family and confusion over traditional sex roles. Anti-feminist discourses of a number of New Right luminaries are examined and it is shown that whilst much of them are newly elaborated responses to the threat of feminism, they are based on allegedly fundamental truths about the nature of women, the family, and relations between the sexes, truths which have echoed down the century and reverberated as major discursive elements in the modern abortion debate.



Typescript. Bibliography: leaves 373-389

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (Ph. D.) , Macquarie University

Department, Centre or School

School of Behavioural Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Rosemary Pringle

Additional Supervisor 1

Bob Connell


Copyright Karen Coleman 1991. Copyright disclaimer:






1 online resource (xii, 389 leaves, bound)

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