Crochet hooks, castor oil, slippery elm bark, syringes full of Lifeuboy soap and Dettol. Sepsis, gas gangrene of the uterus, hysterectomies on 12 year olds, deserted pregnant wives taking their children and jumping off the St Kilda pier and women waiting, scared and alone, on a dark windswept corner of Bourke Street for the stranger’s car that would take them, huddled beneath a blanket on the floor of the backseat, to the backyard abortionist. And if they haemorrhaged on the kitchen table, the best they could hope for was to be dumped on the corner near the Royal Women’s in the hope that someone would find them in time. Many died.
This was the reproductive terrain that Victorian women were forced to negotiate 35 years ago when their “little friend” failed to arrive and, because they were sick, poor, young, bashed or simply unable to shoulder the burdens of motherhood at that time, decided to seek an abortion. For women of means, the illegal procedure would be provided by a qualified gynaecologist in the comfort of a private hospital. Poor women took their chances with well-meaning neighbourhood “Vera Drakes” or similarly unqualified “backyarders.”
In 1967 Bertram Wainer, a Scottish-born St Kilda GP with a passionate commitment to social justice and Jo Wainer, incipient feminist and inaugural secretary of the Abortion Law Reform Association, sought reform. In the process, they uncovered a web of corruption involving doctors, backyard abortionists, high-ranking policemen and suspect politicians. They ran three separate test cases to test the reach of the newly-minted Menhennitt ruling that allowed abortion, prohibited in the Victorian Crimes Act, in a limited range of circumstances.
Bert Wainer’s story is told in Abortion, Corruption & Cops, a film by writer/director John Moore, whose previous credits include the award-winning documentary Guns & Roses and Thomas of Arnhem Land. Moving seamlessly between archival footage and dramatic recreations with Kurt Geyer as Bert Wainer and Genevieve Picot as backyard-abortionist-turned-good Peggy Berman, Moore summons up the stifling prudery and religious moralism of the era. He interviews grandmotherly-looking women whose eyes grow bright with fright as they remember having to spread their legs on a stranger’s kitchen table while instruments boiled away on the stove, or who still find it hard to laugh when they recall how an unwanted pregnancy gave a girl first-hand knowledge of the “lies, exploitation and deviousness” that accompany all illegal practices.
But Bert Wainer’s story should resonate for more than just history buffs. The Federal Government’s ill-disguised antagonism towards women’s reproductive rights gives relevance to Wainer’s assertion that “abortion will continue and have little, if anything, to do with the Church, the law or the doctors, but have a very great deal to do with people and particularly with women”. His moral indignation about police confiscation of medical files, which he saw as an attack patient privacy and dignity, seems a salutary reminder of the importance of these values in light of recent government proposals to introduce a specific Medicare item number for abortion counselling that could enable tracking of doctors and women. “Every child a wanted child”, the poster Wainer proudly hangs in his newly opened fertility clinic in East Melbourne, remains a pertinent reply to those who hand-wring about the number of abortions.
“Stand for something or fall for anything”, goes the old saying. Until his death in 1987, Wainer stood for many things. It was his deep respect for the police and their role in enforcing the rule of law that saw him devastated by his discovery of corruption in the force, and his decision to turn whistle-blower. As a medical student and intern, he’d had little interest in abortion and, like other reputable doctors at the time, had simply referred women to illegal provides when they came to him for help. But when a woman came into his surgery dying from a botched abortion but too terrified to go to hospital for fear of arrest, he refused to look the other way. He got indignant, angry and – in the best feminist tradition – active. But while sympathetic to women, Wainer was no feminist. The man Moore describes in Abortion Corruption & Cops is a social justice campaigner. A man whose own deprived upbringing had alerted him to the ways in which the rich could circumvent harsh and unjust laws, while the poor were forced to live with – or die from – their consequences.
In her new book about women’s stories of illegal abortion, timed for release to coincide with the screening of Abortion, Corruption & Cops, Jo Wainer says that having “tweaked the tail” of the State, Bert suffered its retributive power. In return for having forced a public inquiry into police corruption and opened the state’s first legal abortion clinic. Bert Wainer was bankrupted by the Australian Tax Office, evicted from his medical surgery by a landlady under pressure from a Catholic bishop, and censured by the AMA.
Abortion, Corruption & Cops: The Bertram Wainer Story screeed on SBS on Thursday April 6, at 8:30pm.