A Tribute to Doctor Bertram Wainer – Courageous Fighter for Abortion Rights

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This tribute to the work of Bertram Wainer, who died on 16 January, 1987, was presented to the 28 January 1987 meeting of Radical Women.

It is only fitting that this Radical Women meeting pay tribute to Doctor Bertram Wainer, a courageous man, who died this month at the age of 58.

Wainer’s name is synonymous with the cause of reproductive freedom; and his campaigns against backyard abortions in the late sixties and early seventies will be remembered as a tuning point in this struggle.

In 1985, Bertram Wainer spoke about how he first got involved in fighting against Australia’s reactionary abortion laws and the police corruption, which went with them. He said, 

“I don’t think I had any particular involvement with women having abortions other than a generalised commitment to working class people not being disadvantaged, whether it be because of their sex or the poverty of their childhood and inadequate opportunities to get an education. Abortion as an issue for me — I wasn’t looking for it. Here was an issue where people because of their class origins — that is, they were poor people — and because there is something special about women being oppressed by laws, which were designed to keep the poor down and advantage the rich. I just saw it, as it were, a little bit at a time. This woman can’t get an abortion, that woman can, and that is wrong.”  

Wainer opened the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne in 1972. Since then, the clinic has been a focus of “Right to Life” protests. In the mid-seventies it was fire-bombed. But fifteen years later, Wainer’s clinic remains open, performing abortions and giving contraceptive advice. The Fertility Control Clinic bulk bills direct to Medicare, so no woman is excluded from using its services.

Wainer’s death reminded me personally how much I owe to the Fertility Control Clinic. In 1974, I was fifteen years old and pregnant. What would my life now be like if I had not been able to access a safe abortion? Would I even be alive? What would the lives of thousands of women like me be like?

In 1974, the controversy surrounding the establishment of the Fertility Control Clinic was still generating public heat. The explosion of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement had put the issue of free, safe abortion on demand firmly on the public agenda. So as a suburban teenager, I knew about abortions and I knew about the Fertility Control Clinic. I also knew quite clearly what choice I wanted to make. Had it been but a few years earlier, the choice would have been a backyard butcher or an unwanted pregnancy.

While abortion has been easily available in most Australian states for the last decade, the situation has been a constant battle in Queensland. The prompt action of Bertram Wainer in 1985 helped to ensure the continued availability of safe abortions in that state. On May 20 that year, the Queensland Police conducted simultaneous raids on the abortion clinic in Townsville and Greenslopes Clinic in suburban Brisbane. They stormed the buildings and, in a massive invasion of privacy, seized nearly 20,000 personal medical files. They arrested doctors Bayliss and Grundmann, who ran the two clinics, and charged them with “conspiracy to use force to procure and abortion.” 

The day after the raids, Wainer flew to Queensland and publicly defied the Bjelke-Petersen government by keeping the clinics open. A woman’s right to control her own body is fundamental to her ability to achieve social, political and economic equality. Without reproductive rights — like the right to choose to have or not have children — womens’ “choices” become dependence or poverty, illegal abortion, forced sterilisation or loss of job and educational opportunities.

Bertram Wainer has made a key contribution in the battle for reproductive freedom. Of course we must continue his work. We must defend the right to safe abortion, demand improved and safe contraception. Oppose the forced use of contraceptives, such as DepoProvera and other forms of temporary or permanent forced sterilisation. We have to fight for free 24-hour childcare and a permanent end to poverty for single mothers and their children.

Wainer and his work as a public fighter for safe, legal abortion and accessible contraceptive advice will live on through the ongoing struggle for reproductive freedom. In continuing this struggle we will pay the greatest tribute to the memory of Bertram Wainer.

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