Victims of a Lost Puritanism

Book Review – Lost: Illegal abortion stories. Edited by Jo Wainer, foreward by Helen Garner. Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2006. 214 pages. ISBN: 0~~522~~85231–9

For some, but perhaps not enough of us, time and people divide into two categories: the time before abortion laws were liberalised, and the time after; those who remember what it was like prior to decriminalisation, and those who don’t.

Lost is about the time before, written for those who came after, or who wish to pay tribute to the women they knew who lived through those terrible before-times by bearing witness to their stories. It is edited and introduced by Dr Jo Wainer whose own life, according to a somewhat different chronology, also divides into before and after. Her first 20-odd years before she became the inaugural treasurer of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1967, and all that’s come after in which, as an activist, service-provider and now academic, she has dedicated to the “task of understanding the political, legal, religious, social and medical issues…buried in that one word – abortion.”

Wainer and writer Helen Garner, who authors a short foreword to the collection, vividly describe the stifling, puritan backdrop of 1950s Melbourne against which the dramas of individual women play out. But it is Lost’s collection of 21 first-hand accounts by aborting women – some young, some old, nearly all poor – that captivate both attention and heart. Stories, as Garner notes, that even without descriptions of the women’s appearance or the way her voice sounds and body moves as she talks, still contain “matter enough for a novel”.

Amy waited until marriage to have sex, only to discover she’d prefer to bake a “lovely sponge cake” than have intercourse with her violent alcoholic husband. She had several children in quick succession before – unable to find effective contraception or to resist her husband’s attention – she endured several anaesthetic-free curettes in a stranger’s lounge room.

21-year old Belinda was denied the Pill by a doctor with a framed picture of Mother Mary on his desk, and was lectured for half an hour on the mortal sin of single women using contraception. When she became pregnant, she wanted to continue, but her boyfriend refused to support her. To get a safe abortion at 20 weeks she had to get a psychiatrist to write a letter – the existence of which on her medical files spooked her for years afterwards – saying she’d be an unfit mother.

Sixteen year old Beverly’s instructions from the backyarder who consented to terminate her were as follows: “Come here Thursday morning with $600, bring a packet of pads, a packet of Panadol and don’t expect to go home until Friday night”. When she hesitated before spreading her legs on the man’s kitchen table, he admonishes: “Don’t worry about your pride and dignity now, girl. You lost that the day you got yourself into this mess”.

And on it goes. Bashed women. Scared women. Women so ignorant of the rudiments of sex they don’t even realise they’re pregnant until in labour and, even then, have little idea from what orfice the baby will emerge. Women who accepted the contempt and even sexual violence of abortion providers or the doctors they relied on for referrals to safer practitioners as apt punishment for the sexual “sins” that led to the abortion, or the abortion itself. And women who, inexplicably given the tone and tenor of the times, reject all efforts to make them feel like dirt: “Mind your own business and don’t bother sending me a bill!” Belinda told the Mother Mary doctor before slamming the door behind her. Says Beverly indignantly of her first interview with the backyard provider: “He didn’t even ask my name”.

But while it is each story’s particularity that rivets, it was the common elements of women’s stories – the secrecy, the exploitation, the violence, the suffering, the death – that gave them political charge. Jo and Bert Wainer knew this, and while Bert solicited the stories in Lost in 1985 in a “lest we forget” spirit, he had used newspaper ads to urge women to speak their truths before, and had used the information he elicited to raise awareness of the costs to women and to society – through the flowering of police corruption – of prohibition. Women’s stories were at the heart of the Wainers’ agitation for a Royal Commission into police corruption, and their pursuit of test cases that established the reach of the common law ruling on which Victorian women still rely for safe, legal services.

Before turning the first page of Lost, I hesitated. However worthy the aim, I knew enough about the pre-legalisation era to know I was standing on the threshold of a whole world of pain. But from Garner’s opening words – “It’s an awe-inspiring force, the iron determination of a woman who refuses to bear a child that she knows she cannot mother” – I was hooked. Unable to put the book down, I read straight through to the end.

How could I have forgotten the compelling privilege of being invited into the most painful and intimate corners of other people’s lives? In particular, I felt touched by the way in which women’s fears, health and lives were unquestionably at the centre of the moral Rubicon of pre~~1980s abortion politics. Then, like now, the fetus was never far from women’s minds: its potential to be their helpless, demanding and desperately-loved baby the impetus for the abortion in the first place. But unlike today, where women must battle to be seen and heard in the public debate against chaste, silhouetted images of fetuses set off in surrounds reminiscent of space capsules, the womb was opaque. Women decided what doctors, husbands and others would know of the developing life inside, and it was their experience of gestation and impeding motherhood~~ wonder-filled or terrifying, desired or unwanted – that mediated its relationship with others.

Indeed, at the heart of the contemporary abortion debate is one about the moral frame. Are women at the centre of the story; those who should rightly evoke our compassion and hold the trumping rights, or is it fetuses? Are women autonomous choosers of abortion or duped and bereaved victims of it?

I feel confident about what the Wainers, and the women of Lost, would say.