Justice for Australian women harmed by the ‘Dalkon Shield’ contraceptive 

Justice for Australian women harmed by the ‘Dalkon Shield’ contraceptive 

We helped victims of a faulty contraceptive, the Dalkon Shield, understand their legal rights and win damages for their injuries.  

The Dalkon Shield was an intra-uterine device (IUD) that caused severe injury, infection and sometimes death to the women who used it. It could also fail to prevent pregnancy, resulting in ectopic pregnancies, septic abortion and birth defects in children.  

Over 100,000 Australian women were fitted with the Dalkon Shield, which continued to be sold and recommended by doctors in Australia as late as 1980. This was despite the device being removed from the US market in 1973 after Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigations and more than 15,000 personal injury claims being filed by American women.  

Memos obtained by the Centre showed the device’s marketers, A. H. Robins, shared details of complaints and FDA bulletins with its Australian sales representatives but instructed them not to pass on this information to doctors.  

The Australian Department of Health knew of the problems with the device but took no action to withdraw it from the market. Family Planning agencies were also aware of issues with the Shield but continued to fit it. 

In 1983, our Centre (as PIAC) began giving legal advice to patients of the Leichhardt Women’s Health Service who had been injured by the Shield. We quickly realised that raising public awareness of the Shield’s dangers was crucial.  

In 1984, PIAC Solicitor Angela Nanson appeared on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes to discuss the device, its harm and the US litigation against its makers. We were inundated with inquiries from women who had suffered injury and helped them contact lawyers in America. 

In 1985, more than 300 people attended a seminar we organised, with speakers including lawyers from the US and Philippines.  

Our work intensified after A. H. Robins filed for bankruptcy in 1985, citing the costs of litigation and settlement related to the Shield (though the company continued to return profits of over $100 million annually). Declaring bankruptcy allowed the company to consolidate its liabilities, including future actions arising from its previous conduct, and pay them through a dedicated – and capped – fund. Victims and lawyers saw this as an attempt to avoid paying the full damages victims deserved. 

A US court set a deadline of 30 April 1986 for overseas claims. This left Australian women impacted with little time to file claims, have their cases heard and seek any damages they may be entitled to. We were relentless in publicising the deadline, with Angela making many media appearances.  

With financial support from Legal Aid NSW, we hired an additional four lawyers and two support staff and opened a sub-office known as ‘Dalkon House’ to work on the claims of affected women.  

Angela and Centre Director Peter Cashman travelled to the US twice to pursue matters on behalf of our clients, meeting with counsel assisting the bankruptcy court and the presiding judge to express concern about the treatment of foreign claimants. This meeting ensured a lawyer in the counsel’s office was dedicated to dealing with overseas claims.  

But it also showed us the significant resources required to maintain representation of the claimants. The Centre decided the best interests of its clients would be served by transferring the cases to a private firm who had the resources to take the case to conclusion. Most of our clients agreed to a transfer to Slater & Gordon.  

We were successful in filing more than 1,700 claims before the deadline, and our dedicated publicity helped a total of 6,000 Australian women file claims – the most of any country outside of the US.  

Media Coverage 

Sydney Morning Herald, Legal costs of the IUD put it off the market, 26 February 1986 

Sydney Morning Herald, In the public interest, 12 May 1985 

Sydney Morning Herald, Hope for Dalkon Shield claimants, 8 December 1986 

Keep up to date with our work

Subscribe for updates including media coverage, event invitations and progress stories. You will hear from us about twice a month.