When The Australian published Gary Johns’ opinion piece ‘No contraception, no dole‘ nobody should have been surprised by what happened next. On 7’s Sunrise program commentators described Johns’ proposal as "off the planet" and "outrageous and backwards" while One Nation founder Pauline Hanson called it “ridiculous”. On Channel 9’s A Current Affair one vox-pop interviewee described it as "Nazism." Even The Australian‘s Victoria editor Patricia Karvelas tweeted "I think the piece is mad".
Johns responded by insisting that contraception is a reasonable mutual obligation requirement that will reduce the number of children born into families that are unable to care for them properly. He says he’s not challenging people’s right to have children, only their right to receive income support without having to meet reasonable conditions.
But any proposal that makes it the government’s job to decide who should and shouldn’t have children is bound to run into controversy. There’s a long history of such proposals and good reasons why so many people in countries like Australia, the UK and the US oppose them. Johns’ proposal is also controversial because of its effect on remote Indigenous communities with few job opportunities.
UK – Keith Joseph and the ‘cycle of social deprivation’
Keith Joseph could have become leader of the British Conservative Party. But he damaged his chances with a 1974 speech where he argued that the government should provide contraception for lower class girls who were unfit to raise children. Private Eye magazine dubbed him ‘Sir Sheath’ and commentators summed up his message as ‘pills for proles’.
In the speech, Joseph claimed Britain’s "human stock" was threatened because an increasing proportion of children were being born to lower class women who were incapable of raising them properly:
Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness which are more important than riches. They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, sub-normal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters.
Joseph’s critics claimed he was advocating eugenics with one Labour MP accusing him of wanting to create a “master race.” His biographers dismiss these claims as absurd but acknowledge that his words were careless and his argument poorly researched.
The controversy reemerged in 2010 when Conservative peer Howard Flight criticised the government’s welfare changes saying: "We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive". Journalists like the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt were quick to link Flight’s comments to the Joseph controversy of the 70s.
US – Linking welfare eligibility to birth control
Similar debates have taken place in the US. During the 1960s, President Johnson’s war on poverty focused attention on income support policies and single parenthood. In 1965 a Gallup poll asked Americans what should be done about unmarried women on relief who continued to have illegitimate children. Around one in five said they should be sterilized.
The debate reignited in 1990 when the US Food and Drug Administration approved Norplant, a contraceptive inserted into a woman’s upper arm that can prevent pregnancy for five years. Shortly after the drug’s approval The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial titled: ‘Poverty And Norplant Can Contraception Reduce The Underclass? The editorial immediately attracted criticism, including from the paper’s own reporters and editors. A columnist at another Philadelphia paper wrote: "Hitler could have written the same editorial without pausing to breathe between sentences". The Inquirer later apologised for the editorial .
While the Inquirer backed off, the controversy continued elsewhere. In 1991 columnist Debra Saunders argued that accepting Norplant should be a condition for women receiving welfare. "Parents unable to care for the children they have should put off having more children until they can take care of themselves", she wrote. In a number of states, lawmakers proposed bills to encourage women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to use Norplant. The American Civil Liberties Union argued that: "Attempts to require or encourage women on welfare to use Norplant also violate the constitutional right to reproductive and bodily autonomy."
Last year an Arizona Republican Party official resigned after suggesting that welfare recipients should be placed on Norplant. On a talk-back radio program former Arizona state Senator Russell Pearce spoke about reforming programs:
"You put me in charge of Medicaid," Pearce told one caller, "the first thing I’d do is get [female recipients] Norplant, birth-control implants, or tubal ligations. Then, we’ll test recipients for drugs and alcohol, and if you want to [reproduce] or use drugs or alcohol, then get a job."
According to a report in the Washington Post, Republican candidates quickly distanced themselves from Pearce’s comments.
Australia – Gary Johns calls for compulsory contraception for welfare recipients
Here in Australia, former Labor MP Gary Johns and The Australian decided to put the issue on the agenda. In a recent opinion piece Johns argued: "Some families, some communities, some cultures breed strife. Governments cannot always fix it. Compulsory contraception for those on benefits would help crack intergenerational reproduction of strife."
Like Keith Joseph, Johns argues that the root of the problem is a breakdown in social norms. He argues that the solution is to change the behaviour of people on income support. He also introduces culture into the debate. Johns worries that some communities are fostering a culture poverty that entrenches joblessness and leads to intergenerational dependence on income support. He has expressed particular concern about Indigenous communities. In a 2012 article he wrote:
Where Aborigines have been ‘ghettoised’—whether in Redfern NSW, Aurukun Queensland, or Punmu Western Australia—the result has been the same: appalling physical and moral degradation, and entrapment in a culture of despair. The path out of the ghetto lies in changing the behaviour of individuals, not the dominant society.
In his recent opinion piece he focuses on examples of dysfunction in Indigenous families and acknowledges that his proposal "undoubtedly will affect Aboriginal and Islander people in great proportions."
Johns argues that the culture within some Indigenous communities "breeds strife". Some thinkers, like Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, argue that the problem is the breakdown and distortion of traditional Indigenous norms rather than Indigenous culture itself. But while Pearson argues that communities should respond to dysfunction by strengthening culture Johns rejects this approach as “foolish”. Johns insists that Indigenous culture is part of the problem. According to Pearson, Johns thinks "that our culture is unable to change and must therefore be left to die."
Johns’ latest opinion piece is likely to inflame the debate over Indigenous culture. In order to have children, Indigenous people in some remote communities would need to move to areas with more job opportunities. But as Boyd Hunter of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research argues, moving off country might not be enough to escape reliance on income support. Some critics may interpret Johns’ latest proposal as a deliberate attempt to prevent the intergenerational transmission of Indigenous culture.
Find out more
UK: Andrew Denham’s and Mark Garnett’s biography Keith Joseph has a good account of Joseph’s 1974 speech at Edgbaston. The account appears towards the end of chapter 10).
UK: In his book Underclass: A History of the Excluded Since 1880 John Welshman puts Joseph’s speech into context. See chapter 6 ‘Sir Keith Joseph and the cycle of deprivation’.
US: Julius Paul’s 1968 paper in Law & Society Review, ‘The Return of Punitive Sterilization Proposals: Current Attacks on Illegitimacy and the AFDC Program‘ discusses:
Numerous legislative attempts [that] have included sterilization as part of a program of recommended punitive action that may include the loss of welfare benefits, the imprisonment and/or fining of the mother, the loss of custody of the children, and various combinations of the above.
Australia: Gary Johns explains how his proposal would work on 7’s Sunrise program: "unfortunately the technology is only available for women. Women at the moment could go on Depo Provera and for three months at a time be safe from having a pregnancy. When they come off the benefit, life resumes as normal."
Johns was also interviewed for 9’s A Current Affair.