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30 years of helping women with unplanned pregnancies

WOMEN and teenagers who are facing dilemmas with unplanned pregnancies, are feeling pressured to have an abortion, or experiencing trauma after having an abortion, are among those who call Pregnancy Help from around Australia.

Pregnancy Help volunteers – now working under the new name, Pregnancy Counselling Link – receive about 10 calls a day.

The service started with one woman’s comment at a meeting in Mackay early in 1973.

Right to Life members Dr Monica Allen and Greg O’Dwyer travelled from Brisbane for talks about the possibility of forming a Right to Life group in Mackay.

‘One of the ladies there, Carmel Davidson, a social worker, said ‘You can’t talk about Right to Life unless you’re doing something about the baby’s mother’,’ Dr Allen said.

On the way back in the plane, Dr Allen and Mr O’Dwyer discussed the possibility of doing something positive like that.

‘That’s when Right to Life members moved over and got involved in the job of making it easier for a woman to continue with her pregnancy.

‘Basically we were looking at an alternative to abortion.

‘We opened (Pregnancy Help) about four months after that meeting in Mackay.’

The inaugural meeting was held on June 13, 1973, at the Railway Institute Hall in Turbot St, Brisbane.

That was the start of Pregnancy Help in Australia. It has since spread not only throughout Australia but also to New Zealand.

A similar organisation, Birthline, had already been operating in South Australia.

Today, Pregnancy Help Queensland sponsors the agency, Pregnancy Counselling Link, to provide a toll-free telephone counselling service accessible Australia-wide.

Women, their partners and families seek counselling for unplanned or difficult pregnancies or grief following abortion or other pregnancy loss.

Volunteer telephone counsellors keep the lines open 9am-9pm Monday to Friday, and for two shifts at weekends.

Face-to-face professional counselling is available in Brisbane, and the organisation provides education sessions for schools, tertiary students and allied health professionals, to raise awareness of issues related to unplanned pregnancies.

Writing for the 30th anniversary edition of the organisation’s newsletter, Dr Allen said: ‘Even though Pregnancy Help started to provide women with a real alternative to abortion, there were very few abortion calls in those (early) days.

‘In 1973, 50 per cent of single clients planned to give their babies up for adoption.

‘In those days, many calls came from married women either faced with an unplanned pregnancy or who were sick and pregnant and unable to care for their family.

‘After the inaugural meeting of Pregnancy Help, 50 women volunteered to help women in their homes. Thirty-five other women completed a 12-week telephone counselling course.’

One of the early telephone counsellors, Margaret Turtle, told how she became heavily involved in helping young women, including teenagers.

She recalled how accommodation was needed for girls from the country and how families in Brisbane welcomed them into their homes for the duration of their pregnancies.

Volunteers would support them in continuing their education and accompany them on ante-natal visits when they were feeling apprehensive about that.

‘One thing led to another and I found myself in the labour ward with a frightened 15 year-old who held on to my hand tightly and became distressed when I was asked to leave by the sister in charge,’ Mrs Turtle said.

‘However the doctor said, if I was willing, I could stay.’

Mrs Turtle said that started years of hospital visits to support young women in labour, and she considered herself privileged to be asked to do that.

‘My main concern was to give support and encouragement to the young women,’ she said.

Mrs Turtle also recalled being with young women who had made the decision to give up their babies for adoption.

‘This was a very difficult and emotional time when they were saying goodbye to their babies,’ she said. ‘It was heartbreaking and all I could do was to hold them as they sobbed.

‘They had great courage and they thought this was the best thing for their child. They did it out of love – it was their decision.’

Pregnancy Help adopts a non-judgmental stance as it supports women in reaching their decisions, and in carrying through with those decisions.

‘I could only be there to assist them and encourage them,’ Mrs Turtle said.

‘Some of the girls have kept in touch from time to time. Just recently I received a phone call from a young woman who wanted to tell me about her son, and how well they were doing.

‘A woman approached me a few months ago and said that I had looked after her when her daughter was born many years ago.

‘She chose to have her daughter adopted and has since married and had two more children. She is at peace with her decision.

‘When I look back over the years I realise how privileged I was to have shared the fears, joys, tears and heartaches of these young women.’

Dr Allen said as society’s attitudes changed so did the nature of calls received.

Instead of talking about giving babies up for adoption, more callers wanted to discuss abortion. Dr Allen said more girls were also deciding to keep their babies rather than have them adopted.

‘Parents, boyfriends and employers who may have been putting pressure on (women) to give a baby up for adoption were now pressuring them into abortion,’ she said.

Contraception becoming more readily available also had an effect

Moya Condon, who was a volunteer telephone counsellor for 10 years, volunteer agency co-ordinator for about 14 years and now chairs the management board, said the majority of calls these days were from women over 20 years of age.

Mrs Condon said a large number of calls were from women, either married or single, who found they were pregnant unexpectedly.

That situation caused difficulty today because many women must work to support a mortgage and other family commitments.

In such cases, Pregnancy Counselling Link’s professional staff offer face-to-face counselling for both the woman and her partner.

Mrs Condon said counselling and support was also offered to other family members affected by a pregnancy, pregnancy loss or an abortion.

She said the agency provided a lot of post-abortion counselling, which provided useful information about the grief and after-effects often experienced following a pregnancy termination.

‘Our counsellors give clients as much information as possible about their options, help them explore the issues involved and encourage them to look at how they might feel later if they do have an abortion,’ she said.

‘They aim to ensure clients make decisions that are compatible with their own values rather than those that might placate their partner or family.’

The agency receives 10 to 12 calls a day on its 1800 number, including some from interstate and the Northern Territory.

Sharon Moloney, a volunteer telephone counsellor based in Mt Isa, said the variety of calls received included women with concerns about how their pregnancy was progressing – whether their baby was developing properly – women with grief from having had miscarriages being concerned about their latest pregnancy, women with an unplanned pregnancy grappling with whether to continue with it, and women who had had an abortion many years ago with emotions triggered unexpectedly by a current event.

Mrs Moloney aims to be as supportive as possible in helping callers reach a decision that is best for them.

Pregnancy Help’s Pregnancy Counselling Link phone number is 1800 777 690.

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