Dangerous Remedy & the Heroism of the 1st Abortion Rights Activists

Last week, I sat down with an activist colleague to watch the latest dramatic offering from ABC1, Dangerous Remedy.

Part Mad-Men, part murder mystery, part historical journey, Dangerous Remedy tells the story of abortion rights campaigners Bert and Jo Wainer. Largely forgotten heroes, Bert and Jo championed the cause of one of the most oppressed, stigmatised and social group of the late 1960s – working-class women who were pregnant when they didn’t want to be.

The black-market abortion trade provided safe medical procedures to those who could afford it, but left those with less funds at the mercy of backyarders. Bert and Jo’s quest to expose the corruption in the Victorian Police Force that surrounded the inevitable flourishing of the black market put their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk.

But despite police threats and violent warnings to back off that included arson, violent assaults and, ultimately, the death of Jo’s investigatory journalist boyfriend in suspicious circumstances, Bert and Jo kept going. They rallied abortion providers to stop paying police bribes, collected evidence of police corruption, and somewhere amidst the chaos got married. Bert tested the soundness of the newly minted Menhennitt court judgment that provided doctors with a defence to criminal charges of unlawful abortion by providing abortions to women in need and challenging the cops to arrest him.

Somewhere in the middle of Dangerous Remedy, my colleague and I turned to each other, aghast and ashamed. Appalled at the callousness, exploitation and literal risk to life and limb faced by women wanting an abortion just 50 years ago, we were also ashamed that we had EVER complained about the difficulty in modern-day Australia of advocating for reproductive rights.

Because however tricky it may be to advocate for a stigmatised medical procedure like abortion, the challenges we face in expanding access and securing funding are NOTHING like those faced by pioneers like Bert and Jo. When the credits rolled, I sent an email to Jo, who I first met in the 1990s when I interviewed her for my Masters thesis. The text largely focused on the fist-pounding notion of respect.

Bert had a tricky heart and died in 1987. The Menhennitt judgment stood in Victoria until 2008 when abortion was finally removed from the criminal law – a campaign in which Jo played an important part. But this is not the end of it.

Copycat judgments – the 1971 Levine ruling in NSW and the 1986 McGuire decision in Queensland – remain part of the complex legal regime that still governs abortion in these states. Two years ago, a young woman and her boyfriend were prosecuted for the crime of unlawful abortion in Queensland. Jo was so devastated she travelled to Queensland to observe the court proceedings, which she later described as being like:

… watching a village scene from the maybe 17th century, where when people offended against the local culture, they were put in the stocks, and villagers could walk past and throw eggs at them or stones, or whatever they wanted really. It was a process of ritual public humiliation.

Dangerous Remedy reminds us that the replacement of stigmatising, uncertain and paternalistic regimes with those that regulate abortion like all other medical procedures remains part of the unfinished business of activists of Bert and Jo’s generation. So too does it force us to remember that we can make a difference if we have the courage to try.

Bert and Jo Wainer changed the nature of the choice Australian women faced when unhappily pregnant. Through this change, the pair contributed to the evolution of more enlightened views about the role of women in their own medical decisions and society more broadly. They also threw a spotlight on the relationship between transparency and good governance.

Dangerous Remedy screened on ABC1 this Sunday November 4 at 8:30pm.

Publication history

The Forgotten Champions of Abortion Rights   The Drum Opinion