Australia's horrific abortion history


Alice Williams

Jo Wainer and her husband opened Australia's first legal abortion clinic.

Jo Wainer and her husband opened Australia's first legal abortion clinic. Photo: Teagan Glenane

Feminist Academic Dr Jo Wainer and her husband Dr Bert Wainer opened Australia's first legal abortion clinic in 1972.

This is what she told Alice Williams about the experiences of women before there was access to safe abortion.   

At the end of the 1960s, I was a student activist, campaigning for abortion rights. That's how I met my late husband, Bert Wainer, who was a GP in St Kilda and referred women who needed an abortion to a network of 12 doctors of conscience who could do it safely. They risked everything to do it.

The Royal Women's Hospital had a 30-bed ward just for women who'd been injured whilst getting a backyard abortion. A single ward was for those who were dying, others did not even make it to hospital.


Back then, abortion was such a taboo subject people didn't even use the word. I once counted 12 different euphemisms for abortion.

As is the case everywhere, women of means found ways to do it. Their gynecologist would do a D&C [dilation and curettage, a standard procedure for women with heavy periods or polyps] in a private hospital and kept it quiet.

It was the poor women who couldn't access safe abortion. For them, to have an abortion was a desperate act. Many thought it was criminal and a lot were Catholic and believed they were committing a mortal sin. They had to dig deep to find the courage to act on their own behalf and many had never done that before – they'd just followed the life script written for them by others.

And, of course, they died.

Almost every suburb had its own backyard abortionist. They did it for money. It might have been done by a nurse, or an overseas doctor who couldn't get local registration.

One abortionist was a former policeman who'd trained as a butcher.

This is how it happened.

The woman would tell her partner she was pregnant, and it was his job to find someone to do the abortion and get the money. He would ask around at the pub, use his networks, taxi drivers, bar attendants, until eventually someone would come up with a name and number.

He would ring the number, speak to someone anonymous, and have a cryptic conversation. "Tell her to bring 200 pounds cash, her own Dettol and sanitary pads. She'll be picked up from corner of X and Y street, and she has to be alone."

It would be night, she would be alone. She would get into an anonymous car, with no idea what was coming – she just had to trust. She'd be told to lie down on the back seat and put a blanket over her so no one could see her, and she couldn't see where she was going. She'd be taken to suburban house, where two or three other women would also be waiting.

As she waited she would hear the muffled screams of the woman before her, and then it would be her turn. The first question would always be 'Where's the money?' She'd hand over the cash, Dettol, and sanitary pads.

She'd be told to take off her underpants and get up on the kitchen table. There would be no anesthetic and the operator would put a rag in her mouth so the screams didn't alert the neighbours. He (they were mostly male) would do the dilation and curettage. When it was over she'd be told to get dressed and then they'd drive her somewhere recognisable and let her out of the car.

If there was an error- a ruptured artery or uterus- and we was very lucky, she'd be dumped outside the emergency department of the Royal Women's.

If she was unlucky, she'd be dumped in Port Philip Bay.

Or two bodies would be put in a pauper's coffin and cremated.

Or they'd bury them out in Sherbrook forest. All the abortion doctors had mechanisms for disposing of the bodies of women who died on the table.

And their families? [Once the family found out a woman had died while having an abortion], these women simply fell off the family tree. Often they were never spoken of again. Women went missing all the time. The whole family just made up a story.

[After a long battle, the Wainers opened the first abortion-providing service that worked openly in the Southern Hemisphere.]  

Nobody ever spoke about the experience of the women. No one asked and it was considered deeply shameful. One of the things we did was to interview women and record their experiences. Women were expected to be ashamed of themselves, but actually relief was their overwhelming response.

I was really affected by how strong these women were. It was their one moment of backing themselves. For most of the women it was a transitional point in their lives, they became stronger and that self-confidence flowed into the rest of their lives.

I've been in the clinic when it's been under siege, surrounded by people harassing and tormenting all who came through the doors. It's astonishing that that is still allowed – but because it's vulnerable women, it's OK. Last year, Tasmania introduced 'bubble legislation' which makes it illegal for anti-abortion protestors to come with 100 meters of service providers. We absolutely need that introduced across the country.

Protest groups only began harassing women once they had access to safe, legal abortion – those groups simply did not exist before then. And yet the abortion rate did not change when it became legal, according to the 1976 Royal Commission on Human Relationships.

The primary way to push women back into the domestic arena is through restricted abortion. In the US they call it 'salami tactics' – chipping away at abortion rights bit by bit. 

The protection and responsibility of abortion rights are riding on the back of the work that was done by your grandmothers. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Jo Wainer's book is Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, with a foreword by Helen Garner.

Alice Williams is a Melbourne author.