Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

ADJOURNMENT - Siedlecky, Dr Stefania, AM

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (18:44): I am a bit disappointed that Senator Rhiannon did not mention my contribution in that debate about the Senate changes of electoral rules about the importance of the education of the voting public. But I am sure she will get around to that in a future contribution.

This evening I want to talk about a true legend in women's health and in our community-Dr Stefania Siedlecky. In June this year Stefania Siedlecky died in Sydney. Among the outpouring of respect and love for this remarkable woman, the board of the management committee of the Leichhardt Women's Community Health Centre passed the following motion:

The Board of Management and staff of Leichhardt Women's Community Health Centre acknowledges the sad passing of Dr Stefania Siedlecky AM, a founder of Australia's women's health movement and trailblazer. Stefania has had a significant and lasting impact on thousands of women's lives and Australia's health system and academia through her intelligence, passion and commitment to medicine and women's health which spans more than fifty years. In 1974 Stefania was the first doctor at Leichhardt Women's Community Health Centre, occupying an interesting and uncomfortable space between the old guard medical establishment and a push for a new kind of primary health care model, now internationally regarded as best practice. Over the years Stefania did not waiver in her commitment and compassion for women's equality and women's right to access quality health care without discrimination or impediment.

Stefania was an excellent doctor, a pioneer, mentor and friend to many. The Board of Management and staff give their condolences to Stefania's family.

Stefania was born in 1921 in Blackheath. Blackheath at that time was not a friendly place for people who came from overseas-for migrants. In fact, foreigners were not particularly welcome in the Anglocentric world. Stefania and her sister Josephine were called the 'bold Russian brats' because they were energetic, attractive and intelligent. Their father was very assertive in expounding his atheist and socialist views to anyone, whether they were interested or not.

Stefania and Josephine each became the dux of their school, and both studied medicine at Sydney, where there were not too many medical students at that time. Stefania's first preference was to study teaching, but she was rejected due to her bad eyesight. She then took on a scholarship and graduated very highly in her class. She was one of the first female residents at St Vincent's Hospital, where she was paid at that time 70 per cent of the male rate. Still, her father commented with pride that 'a slip of a girl' could be paid so well, such was his pride in her achievement. She also worked at Rachel Forster Hospital in Redfern, a women's hospital run by women. She moved to Darwin after the war and then came back and practiced medicine in Blackheath again, and continued to have a high-profile medical career in that part of Sydney.

Due in large part to her experiences during World War II, Stefania developed a lifelong interest in women's health. She recalled later that:

working in a women's hospital during the war years I saw women die from infection and haemorrhage following illegal abortion, and the hypocrisy of doctors who would do a discreet safe abortion for their private patients.

One doctor went so far as to say: 'I am here to teach you how to deliver babies, not how to prevent them.'

Such experiences had a profound impact on her future career and values. Throughout her career Stefania was a strong advocate for women to have adequate information about, and access to, contraception at a time when it was unfashionable to do so. In 1971 she joined Family Planning New South Wales, which became a lifelong passion. It was there she worked at a clinic as a training doctor. She worked as an enthusiastic volunteer in school and community education programs, and talked on sex, contraception, pain relief in childbirth, and menopause to various women's groups. In 1974 Stefania helped to establish the Leichhardt women's health centre and the Preterm Foundation-two schemes which helped to bring safe, legal abortion into the open in New South Wales.

In 1974 she was appointed as a consultant in family planning in the Commonwealth Department of Health, initially for six months but eventually for 12 years. At the time, that appointment raised some hackles with some former Sydney medical colleagues, who questioned the choice of such a dangerous radical for such an important job. Indeed, that job needed such a dangerous radical. In 1976 she became adviser-and later senior adviser-in family planning and women's health. Among her many successes in the Department of Health were the first National Women's Health Conference in 1975, the establishment of the Action Centre for young people in Melbourne in 1976 with Family Planning Victoria and the later establishment of Warehouse and the Fairfield Multicultural Centre in Sydney with Family Planning New South Wales. She worked and, in fact, survived through successive governments, pleased that she had been able to maintain a real interest in women's health. During these years she oversaw the allocation of funding for research projects and for special units in each state for doctor education in family planning. Through this process she was able to bring an 'open mind, sensitivity to cultural factors and a real empathy for other people's experiences'. These, actually, are the basis for truly effective development of policy in any area, but most particularly in the area of health.

In 1978 Stefania obtained a Master of Science in medical demography from the University of London. Her master's thesis, Sex and contraception before marriage, was published in 1979. In 1979-80 she worked for two months with the United Nations, developing preparatory papers for the UN mid-decade conference for women held in Copenhagen in 1980. She was a member of the Australian delegation to that mid-decade conference and then continued to represent us at the International Conference on Population in Mexico in 1984 and the UN end-of-decade conference for women in Nairobi in 1985. She helped prepare Australia's position papers on women's health and family planning issues. She fondly recalls working with other women at the Mexico conference to have the 'Role and Status of Women' given separate consideration instead of being included under the title 'Reproduction and the Family'.

Stefania retired from the public sector in 1986 and was invited to join the UNFPA Special Advisory Committee on Women, Population and Development from 1987 to 1993. She became a member of the board of the Family Planning Association of the ACT and later in New South Wales from 1987 to 2000, including a two-year term as president. Over this time, Stefania established and chaired the Family Planning NSW Ethics Committee and, from 1989 to 1995, represented Family Planning Australia on the East and South East Asia and Oceania Region Council, helping to set up its women's subcommittee, focusing always on ensuring that women's voices were heard and that women's voices talked about the importance of women's health. She was also on the board of the Preterm Foundation and chair of its Ethics Committee from 1987 to 2004.

In 1989, Stefania was appointed Honorary Associate in Demography at Macquarie University, where she became involved in epidemiological research and teaching. In 1990, she co-authored and published a seminal book, Populate and Perish-Australian Women's Fight for Birth Control. She has published numerous papers, both locally and internationally, on the use of contraception, teenage pregnancy, abortion and female genital mutilation-some of the first work done in this country on these issues-working closely with women from international countries and again making sure that women's voices with the lived experience were part of the ongoing discussion and the development of policy.

Stefania was a member of so many women's organisations who loved and cherished her, including the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and also Women in Black-strong groups that worked to ensure that the messages of peace and the role of women as victims of war were also maintained in the open debate. She believed that women needed to be involved and that they could take their knowledge, their experience and their academic knowledge into development of policy and building the knowledge links across the world. In 1987 Stefania was made a Member of the Order of Australia 'for public service particularly in the field of women's health'. In 2005 she was awarded an Edna Ryan Award, which is a celebration of women who make a difference as feminists in the modern world.

Stefania was an inspiration to so many people and so many women of my generation. Her work continued despite the fact that she retired from the active workforce. She was always there to advise, to encourage and to work with women of all ages. We are very fortunate that we have a number of her radio interviews, which are through the ABC network, where in her own voice we hear her talking about the experiences in her life that inspired her to work in the areas of women's health. In a Radio National broadcast that she did with other women to acknowledge the 80th anniversary of Family Planning NSW, she was asked about what originally got her thinking about the need to work with women, particularly around the issue of family planning and ownership of your own body. She described watching her mother back in the 1920s and 1930s-as a young woman, she noticed that her mother was actually using Condy's Crystal solution as a douche to ensure that she would not fall pregnant again-and went on to talk about the incredible danger of that form of practice. That made a young Stefania think about what she would do as a practitioner and as an advocate for the issues around women's rights.

I cannot begin to express how much I admired this woman and how much I continue to admire her even though she is no longer with us. Her inspiration will and must continue. I would like to end with her own words, as I think they sum up much of her passion and her energy in this field. She said that it is really important that we continue to work into the future because, 'in spite of our successes, we need to remain vigilant to make sure we don't lose what it took us so long to gain.' We will always miss Stefania, but we will always continue to be inspired by her.

I wish to add my messages of condolences to the messages of so many other people to her very large family: four children, five stepchildren, many grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. These children have a wonderful legend that they can remember: a strong woman, a strong feminist, a strong doctor and someone whose inspiration will continue.