Look, it's been a long time* since I marched on the streets shouting "get your rosaries off my ovaries". That slogan is a very useful message to all politicians who want to tell women what to do with their bodies. It's most often been used in the battle to make abortion free, safe and legal, but today it has a whole new meaning.
This week, Tony Abbott called on middle-class women to have more children. It's an oldie but a goldie from the conservative side of politics. Have more kids, not just for the love of the little tiny ones but for the love of our nation. You might remember former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello made the same plea in 2006, after introducing the $5000 baby bonus four years earlier: "I encourage people who can, if you have the opportunity, if you're young enough, to have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country."
Our former prime minister took a different tack. He said current rates of childbirth among this group were a "real problem ... that is a real problem in every Western country: middle-class women do not have enough kids. Women in the welfare system have lots of kids."
I know. He's one of our briefest-ever-serving prime ministers, and he isn't even in Parliament anymore so why give Tony Abbott any attention? A good question which has a very good answer.
We see way too many conservative politicians wielding numbers with no basis in fact, making their arguments based on zero evidence. That's particularly true when it comes to talking about women and their rights. I can't remember who coined the expression "anecdata" sometime in the '80s, but its meaning is important. Don't confuse personal experience with actual research.
I asked the fantastic humans at the Australian Bureau of Statistics about the former prime minister's claims. The reply? "The ABS does not have data on births by income levels. Therefore, we're not in a position to make a connection between fertility and income."
Of course, if we wanted to verify Abbott's claims, we could. Kind of. The ABS publishes fertility rates based on local government area. We could look at those fertility rates and come to a few conclusions (although you'd also have to adjust for a whole bunch of other factors for each area). In 2018, the latest figures we have, there were 315,147 registered births, an increase of 1.9 per cent from 2017. For all Australian women, the total fertility rate was 1.74 births per woman. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, total fertility rate was 2.37 births per woman.
So actually, we are having heaps of babies, and who has them is not all that relevant because what you are at birth is not who you are as you age.
Liz Allen, demographer and author of The Future of Us, says comments like Abbott's come from a place of fear, a fear that the dominant social group will be replaced by another.
"This fear is that the white European culture will be replaced by a multicultural migrant culture," she says.
Allen, a post-doctorate researcher with seven kids, says there is no point admonishing women to have more children unless there are the appropriate supports in place.
Both the Australian government and businesses should do more to support families, to support parents in the workplace and to enable women to maintain an engagement in the workplace.
"We don't want to be saying 'this particular kind of woman should be procreating because these particular kinds of women are having too many or too few'. That's a dangerous and false narrative," she says.
And she has the best advice for politicians, present or future. Support all women and all men to have the family size they want.
Of course, the former prime minister is not the only person dispensing advice about reproduction and sexual health. Remember Barnaby Joyce's fear that the use of the vaccine Gardasil, designed to stop the spread of the human papilloma virus, would lead to promiscuity among girls? He opposed its free provision because of the vaccine's social implications.
This fear is that the white European culture will be replaced by a multicultural migrant culture.Demographer Liz Allen
Joyce, the father of four daughters, said he would be "personally very circumspect" to provide a vaccine to girls who were too young to cope with the potential consequences of sexual activity. Which is somewhat of a joke, considering what Joyce did next.
Here's what Gardasil did next. Public Health England just published a study of sexually active 16- to 24-year-old women that began before the start of their national HPV vaccination program for the most common type of virus. In 2018, 10 years after the vaccine was introduced, they detected no HPV16/18 infections in 16- to 18-year-olds.
No HPV infections. Other strains are also declining (which they say shows evidence of cross-protection). And what's also brilliant is that there hasn't been any evidence of increases in any other high-risk HPV types. In other words, these young women can shag wildly or tamely (far more likely) and still be safe from HPV.
What does all this mean? Should women feel seen because politicians have a view about their reproductive value to society? More likely surveilled. As Gloria Steinem said: "Sexism is not inevitable. It's only about controlling reproduction and therefore controlling women."
We are all beyond that now.
*About 12 weeks, since just before the NSW government removed abortion from the criminal code.
- Jenna Price is a regular columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.