When Dr. Mary Kille moved from England to Tasmania with her family in 1973, she expected to be able to continue working in the field of sexual health without skipping a beat.
But in Tasmania, the Family Planning Association was in its infancy and facing fierce opposition.
“By the time I got here, the opposition had really got together and it was formidable,” Dr. Kille said.
The contraceptive pill had been around since the ‘60s but unwanted teenage pregnancies still persisted.
Unmarried women felt they had to borrow engagement rings for consultations and men felt embarrassed buying condoms from the petrol station.
When Dr. Kille and nurse Philippa Sharman started the first Family Planning clinic in the hospital in Burnie in 1976, the loudest opposition didn’t come from religious groups but from general practitioners.
“I think they felt it was an intrusion on their practices but the main thrust of family planning was unwanted teenage pregnancies.
“And the girls weren’t going to their family GPs who knew them from the time they were small.”
Dr. Kille believes setting up in the Outpatient Department of the hospital, where she was also working as an anesthetist, was the best move they could have made to gain acceptance on the North-West Coast.
In 2018, the Family Planning clinic in Burnie celebrated the organisation’s 45th anniversary in Tasmania. At the celebration Dr. Kille reflected on how far Family Planning has come from those early days.
“Years ago there was a GP in the mid ‘70s, he was down on the West Coast and of course that means all the towns there and he was refusing to supply the pill. And these poor women they had no transport to get themselves up to Burnie, so they were stuck.”
“So the women there all got together and they were a force to be reckoned with, the women of the West Coast. And so through Family Planning they got me to go down to do some secret clinics and a sort of covert, secret operation.”
About ten years after the first hospital clinic, a second clinic was set up in a tiny weatherboard house in Poke Street, Cooee – an apt name that Dr. Kille says the patients never forgot.
Family planning moved to its present location in Upper Burnie in 1992 while the hospital clinic closed in 2006.
The organisation gradually became more focused on education, promoting information on menopause, contraception and sexual health.
Dr. Kille made important progress in the treatment of sexual assault by providing training to police officers and doctors on how to approach these cases.
Family Planning also helped to break the silence on contraception that was enforced by law.
“When I first started there was a law that said it was an offence for any person in any place to show to any person a contraceptive,” Dr. Kille said.
“If I had the courage, I should have got myself arrested.”
It wasn’t until 1986 that this law was repealed as a result of a huge campaign by Family Planning involving driving giant condoms around the state.
Dr. Kille has also seen the methods of contraception improve since the 1970s. While the pill was available since the ‘60s, dosages were high and caused more side effects.
“In those days we introduced diaphragms and IUDs (Intra Uterine Devices). But there wasn’t a very big range.
“And the whole of my life working in family planning has been frustrating because there’s no 100 per cent method that doesn’t have some sort of disadvantage out of it.”
Dr. Kille has a collection of posters and books on the history of contraception and Family Planning.
She flips through a brick of a book called Ladies Handbook of Home Treatment from 1912 to the secret back pocket that would hold a diagram of the reproductive organs – if the pharmacist deemed the woman to be of decent character.
One poster shows an array of IUDs that look more like instruments of torture than of medicine. Another poster documents the various things women and men have fashioned into contraceptive devices, from lemon halves to sheep intestines.
Today, a new type of contraception is in vogue: Long Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC).
Judy Smyth has been a specialist nurse at the Burnie Clinic for almost 25 years and worked with Dr. Kille for a couple of years before her retirement in 1995.
“We’ve seen lots of changes here… particularly in contraception. Many years ago it was pretty much the pill. But we’ve really come a long way since then,” Mrs. Smyth said.
“We’re really promoting, particularly with younger women, longer-acting contraception because it’s much more reliable and they don’t have to remember to take it. It goes a long way in preventing unplanned pregnancies.”
Mrs. Smyth said these devices are becoming increasingly popular through word-of-mouth.
Family Planning is preparing an education campaign to promote LARC to tackle the teenage pregnancy rate on the North-West Coast, which is 2.5 per cent higher than the national average.
Project coordinator for the LARC4U program Judy Brown is consulting with community groups and gathering information through an online survey for 18 to 24-year-olds to find out how young women access contraception.
“Hopefully that information will help us pull out some key messaging we can actually have branding using the LARC4U campaign, and then we hope to launch around contraception day which is the 26th of September,” Mrs. Brown said.
Mrs. Smyth said the role of nurses at Family Planning has changed over the years. In the early years, nurses did pregnancy testing and gave advice on women’s health but after some specialist training they were able to do pap smears and STI checks.
Today her patients range from girls pre-puberty to women in their eighties who come for women’s health issues.
“There are a couple of times over the years where I’ve been seeing three generations of the same family for their pap smears,” Mrs Smyth said.
Part of her job is to go out to high schools and colleges to discuss responsible behaviour, safe sex and contraception. She still gets some curly questions thrown at her by inquisitive young people.
“I’m still actually shocked occasionally after all these years.”
She says it’s important to have a gentle open approach with young people and to assure them that everything they say in the clinic is absolutely confidential.
Mrs. Smyth believes Family Planning will always play an important role in the health system.
“It’s totally non-judgmental. We see people of all gender identities and everyone’s very welcome here and we try to put everyone at ease.”
Article originally published in the Advocate on August 4, 2018. ‘Opposition to acceptance: Family Planning Tasmania 45 years on’ by Sarah Lansdown.