Bertram Wainer (1928-87) grew up fatherless in Gorbals, Glasgow’s poor district, during the Great Depression. He had to go to work after primary school. Fortunately the lad immigrated to Australia, worked, returned to high school and joined the Australian army, the institution that funded his medical studies. He studied tropical medicine at Sydney Uni then spent 2 years in Papua New Guinea before taking charge of Brisbane’s biggest military hospital. Acting Lieut Col Dr Wainer only quit the military in protest over the Vietnam War, in 1966.
Women’s rights didn’t become an issue to Bert until after he had a medical practice in Melbourne; in 1967 a young woman collapsed in his surgery, haemorrhaging from an illegal abortion. She refused hospital for fear of arrest so Bert treated her in the clinic! After that, Dr Wainer dedicated his life to women and families.
Abortion Law Reform Association/ALRA campaigned from 1966. It was there, at meetings of the ALRA, that Jo Richardson and journalist Lionel Pugh met Dr Wainer. At an ALRA meeting Wainer proposed doing a test case. If it was breaking the law, the police would arrest them and they could argue it in front of a jury.
Bert was angered by safe illegal abortions being available only to the wealthy. He was further outraged when the police raided Dr James Troup’s gynaecology surgery in 1968, seizing private medical files. Between 1967-71, illegal abortions in the two biggest states (NSW, Victoria) were the largest single cause of maternal deaths.
In Feb 1968, gynaecologist Dr James Troup and Sister Peggy Berman were arrested in Melbourne by Inspector Frank Holland, and charged with abortion offences. Mrs Berman had been forced to carry sums of cash (in a wheelbarrow) on behalf of her boss, over the years, functioning as a go-between for the doctor and senior policemen, Victoria Police homicide squad chief Jack Ford and Jack Matthews. Brave Peggy Berman provided sworn testimony about the police protection rackets.
In 1969, Dr Charles Davidson was charged with an abortion crime. Victorian Supreme Court Justice Clifford Menhennitt, in his landmark Common Law decision of 1969, found a doctor not guilty of performing an illegal abortion on the grounds that a lawful abortion is one believed by the doctor to be necessary to preserve the woman from serious danger to her life or her mental or physical health.
The Menhennitt ruling established the Common Law right to legal abortion, the decision meaning Victorian doctors could perform a legal abortion if the danger of continuing the pregnancy was greater than that of termination. Yet despite the Menhennitt ruling that Dr Davidson was not guilty, Victoria’s written Civil Law remained unchanged.
So Dr Wainer set out to test it. He organised abortions for 3 women, one a poor immigrant mother who had 9 children, and publicly invited the state to prosecute. Aware of the widespread public support for abortion reform, the government refused to prosecute him.
Women were demanding reproductive rights
in most cities in Australia and elsewhere
Wainer’s fight against the abortion laws brought him into direct conflict with the police and the Conservative state government. So to expose corruption, he obtained many sworn affidavits from witnesses involved in the illegal abortion racket, women willing to risk police victimisation. These plans demanded enormous personal sacrifices from Dr Wainer and his fellow campaigners. Journalists published the evidence, even though Lionel Pugh must have known the risk of him being murdered by the police was high.
Wainer then placed newspaper advertisements calling on women to contact him with their evidence. Inevitably the doctor and his closest supporters were subjected to ongoing violence and intimidation. In 1969 Dr Wainer was stabbed by unknown men and left for dead; his sister’s home was fire bombed; and both he and Jo Wainer were shot at! In 1970, Pugh’s young body was found in a Parkville street with a shotgun and a “suicide” note. The autopsy found that Pugh could not have fired the shot that killed him. Even the corruption evidence that Pugh had been collecting disappeared from his home when he died.
With the help of a journalist Evan Whitton, Wainer released the affidavits to the press. Public pressure forced the government to call a formal inquiry into police corruption. A 1971 Board of Enquiry into Corruption in the Police Force was published and presented to both Houses of Parliament. Headed by my cousin Judge William Kaye, it revealed organised graft since c1953. Each of the corrupt policemen was named individually and his crimes revealed, Superintendents Ford & Jack Matthews being gaoled for 5 years and others less. Read Dr Wainer’s own book It Isn’t Nice 1972 .
Fertility Control Clinic, East Melbourne, opened 1972
The beautiful gardens and entrance were protected by high walls and a guard
for whenever protesters harassed families going inside.
Women and families had won. In 1972 Dr Wainer and 3 other doctors set up East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic/FCC. It offered public access to Medibank funded contraception, abortion & sterilisation, and counselling. I was head psychologist at FCC from Jan 1976 on.
Bert died of throat cancer and myocardial infarction in 1987. At his funeral the Uniting Church minister described him as a man of justice, determination & compassion, moved by human suffering. NB abortion wasn't removed from Victoria’s Criminal Code until 2008, 21 years after Bert died.
Read Gideon Haigh’s book