Contraception and the ‘underclass’ debate: from Keith Joseph to Gary Johns

Sir Sheath - Private Eye

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

'Harsh means advised to combat illegitimacy' The Milwaukee Journal - Jan 27, 1965

‘Harsh means advised to combat illegitimacy’ The Milwaukee Journal – Jan 27, 1965

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.

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20 Responses to Contraception and the ‘underclass’ debate: from Keith Joseph to Gary Johns

  1. David says:

    Bloody good idea.

  2. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:


    I would have thought there is a clear case for government intervention to assist females in communities where sex is not taught by parents or anyone else.

    I do recall Daniel Moynihan saying something along these lines a long time ago.

    Women get pregnant not because they planned to have children but because of sexual ignorance and in the course then have to bring up children who more than likely repeat the pattern. This leads them to living in poverty most of their lives.

    To be honest I think this was what Keith Joseph was alluding to.
    I do not think He was ever a leadership contender either but a person who provided intellectual foundations to others more gifted in the art of politics like Maggie!

  3. conrad says:

    “I would have thought there is a clear case for government intervention to assist females in communities where sex is not taught by parents or anyone else.”

    I guess this means .00001% of the population that hasn’t yet found a television, the internet or a library. Perhaps we do need a national broadband after all.

    “Women get pregnant not because they planned to have children but because of sexual ignorance and in the course then have to bring up children who more than likely repeat the pattern. This leads them to living in poverty most of their lives”

    This is a crazy and incorrect statement on two fronts:

    1) There is no evidence children repeat the pattern because of ignorance — all evidence shows the opposite, which is why the median rate for first births now is the highest ever, and there are so few teenage births these days that there are simply better things to worry about (about 11K in 2013 vs. a total of 310K for everyone, and I find it hard to imagine most of these were due to ignorance c.f., accidents, people simply wanting to have children early etc.). The small number also suggests that there are essentially no groups in this category, just a scattering of individuals at best. Even testing this for more likely (and politically stigmatized) groups in the NT, we find that the birthrate there is 2.2 per female, which is hardly much different to everywhere else (1.8 per female). Thus the statement again fails.

    2) I find it hard to believe that even those who happen to have unplanned children due to ignorance are more than likely</strong to live in poverty most of their lives and that having the children out of ignorance is the causal factor in this.


    even if (2) was the case (i.e., children like this were the main causal factor in poverty), surely this would be a problem with our current social structure where if you have a child out of ignorance, you are damned for all eternity, rather than something you would blame the individual for.

  4. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:


    i think you need to read Daniel moynihan who made part of this topic his own.

    As for Australia I can only offer anecdotal evidence.I was born in Bowraville and white people with girls told their children not to associate with Aboriginals for this very reason. We didn’t understand until we got older.
    Indeed not long ago I was told by people there that such sexual ignorance is still lthe norm. It is mazing how much ignorance there is. Indeed one common myth is having sex in one position meant one couldn’t get pregnant.
    Of course this is only an anecdote but ignorance pervades a long time. it was the reason why there were more pregnancies among teenage women in Queensland for the 70s and 80s !

    Unwed mothers who have a number of children in poverty? Sorry but what don’t you understand? Admittedly the evidence is in the USA where there are surveys on any topic rather than Australia.

    I am not agreeing with Johns only saying the government should intervene where the girls want it.

    I don’t care how they got into poverty I simply want them out of it.

    • conrad says:

      This sort of ignorance may well have been prevalent in the 70s, but all evidence shows that it has diminished today. This is why I gave the teenage pregnancy figures, which are more or less the lowest on record in Aus as a proportion of all births. This data basically says that the type of ignorance you are talking about has decreased hugely. Either that or teenagers have decided to stop doing it with each other, which I find rather hard to believe (abortion rates are low too, so it isn’t due that).

      As for young mothers in poverty, I didn’t say that many mothers wern’t in poverty — that clearly isn’t true. The claim is much more specific: Having children is unlikely to have large effects on the likely poverty rate of people that had them via ignorance over a life time. Basically, you need to take into account the base rate of early poverty leading to later poverty before you then look at the effect having children due to ignorance has on top of that. For example, if we looked at people who started off in poverty and didn’t have children, we would still find many remained in poverty. So the real data is how much longer you remain in poverty if you have children via ignorance (or even accidents due to incorrect beliefs). If you don’t look at it like this, then all you are saying is high levels of inequality are bad, which I don’t suppose too many people would disagree with.

      I also agree the US situation isn’t analogous to Aus. There are well known wide-scale differences in major ethnic groups for which there is no real equivalent in Aus– notably African Americans. There are also arguments about why this leads to them having more children earlier, but I don’t think anyone is suggesting ignorance is factor — I think the most common one is that they basically have nothing to lose by having children and having them earlier. Whether this has parallels with groups in poverty in Aus would be interesting to know. Out of curiosity, I looked that up, and the age of first birth for indigenous Australians is about 3 years less than the average Australian (probably not dissimilar to country Australians in general, which I can’t find the figures for), so it seems there is no clear parallel.

      • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:


        I should have stated earlier I did say IF.

        I wasn’t attempting to say it was occurring now but if it was occurring now.

  5. Peter WARWICK says:

    Regarding the intergenerational unemployment, my wife works for a company that deals exclusively with long term unemployed. Some families have had the breadwinner unemployed since grandad was on the dole many years ago.

    The situation is of course, a neat earner for the company, and subsequently my wife.

    She notices a distinct culture of unemployment in the client families. There is almost a “badge of honour” (even a “proud history”) to be unemployed. The whole scenario is exacerbated by too many children – often more than three, all inheriting the same culture. The baby bonus was seen as earned income replacement.

    At least by limiting families to two, the proud culture is reduced in magnitude at least.

    Perhaps for any children beyond two, the parents should pay the government.

    It was interesting to hear an aboriginal leader recently stating that the demise of aboriginal culture and welfare was due to the overly generous welfare system.

    I think that there has been sufficient debate for all quarters, agreed by all quarters, that passive welfare is poisonous, and welfare must be active, and interventionist.

    It is clear that there is an intertwining between culture and ignorance – with sexual ignorance substantially enmeshed with culture.

  6. Peter WARWICK says:

    “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.”

    But does not the government have the job already of deciding who shall have a vehicle drivers licence.

    Why is it that the decision to procreate is sacrosanct ?

  7. John Bennetts says:

    One child while on social support is perhaps an accident. The second should trigger a Go/NO GO situation: sterilisation or at least contraception on one hand, or loss of benefits on the other.

    Anything less is plain silly, socially and economically as well as being unfair to the kids involved. Do they have a voice?

  8. Peter WARWICK says:

    What has flummoxed me is that to gain a vehicle drivers licence, one is required to pass a fairly stringent test before being let loose on the roads.

    But procreation seems to untested. As they say “three minutes and three mils” and its all over.

    I would never deny the right to create a human being, but surely the parents must be able to show the capacity (financial, emotional, skills) to procreate. If they are lacking these qualities, then no benefit should accrue. They take on the responsibility themselves.

    In precisely the same way that if a person lacks the driving skills, then no licence can be issued.

    Am I off the planet ??

    • conrad says:

      Yes, you make the Chinese government, the people that thought of their 1 child policy (which they had far more reason to do than most other countries), and the people that enforce moral codes on others sound like a bunch of hippies.

      • Peter WARWICK says:

        Thanks Conrad,
        I was not aware that rape was part of the moral code people foisted on others.
        Perhaps we should lobby governments to dispense with driving licence tests, and charges for sexual assault be off the statute, in the name of moral freedom (driving licence test, air pilots competency tests and other such things have a moral dimension). .
        My point that people are free to procreate freely with gay abandon, but not unlimitlessly at the taxpayers expense, and not at the very considerable emotional and social cost to the children, seems to be lost on you.

        I was thinking of the children as hippies tend to do.

        • conrad says:

          My point (and god knows where rape came into this — what’s on you mind ?!) is that standardized tests to enforce the moral standards of potential parents is an even more authoritarian idea than most authoritarian regimes can think of. Even China never did it as far as I’m aware, and mentioning the only regime I can think of would break Godwin’s law so I won’t (perhaps there are others), suffice to say that analogies between cars and people are generally pretty poor.

  9. derrida derider says:

    If people like Johns want to make avoiding further sole parenting a condition of getting income support I’m more concerned about what that means for their conception of income support rather than their conception of sole parenthood.

    Whatever happened to the notion of kids – and their parents too – having a RIGHT to support from the community, rather than being fed with cold and usurous hand by his preferred religious charity? This notion of rights was a distinctive, deliberate and wise choice by the founders of the Australian welfare state when the memory of the Poor Laws was fresh. Perhaps John proposes we reintroduce workhouses and orphanages; after all they had such wonderful outcomes in the past – not.

    Bluntly, this country is rich enough to make sure no-one goes hungry, homeless, or uneducated, no matter what the perceived sins of themselves or their parents. That this must involve giving money to minorities we disapprove of is a small price to pay for ensuring that.

    • conrad says:

      From a selfish point of view, it would also be cheaper too. Having the government taking away children whose parents don’t have the money to look after them and sticking them in institutionalized care would cost a mint both in the short term (it’s expensive to house children) and long term due to the especially poor outcomes associated with this type of program.

      • fdb says:

        You’re missing the point Conrad…

        The idea here is to avoid the horror of state-funded families and the horror of state-funded institutions for the care of children, by way of forced sterilisation.

        If only rich people have children, then obviously within a few generations we will all be rich!

        What’s not to like?

  10. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:


    I think we need a pregnant pause

  11. taxpayer says:

    Look at the mum who stabbed 8 babies to death. Matter being hushed up because she is aborigine. Keisha Abrahams mum killed her. Faith Leaso mum bashed her death. It goes on and on these little children not wanted.

  12. w ch says:

    Just a note of thanks for your historical knowledge. Sir Keith’s speech crossed my mind when Johns wrote his recent article. I am glad someone picked up on it. Says a lot about right wing Labor that one of their ex MPs is now echoing the concerns of people who were considered on the hard right of the UK Tory party in the 1970s.

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