Dr Bertram Wainer in 1971 reading the abortion inquiry report. Wainer successfully lobbied for legal access to abortion for women in Victoria.
THE opening scene of Dangerous Remedy, the ABC TV drama about Dr Bertram Wainer's campaign to end illegal abortion, had a powerful effect on me because it was so like the backyard abortion I had in 1965. I lived in Adelaide at the time. Everyone knew you went to Melbourne, but where in Melbourne?
A friend made some discreet inquiries and I was told to look in the Pink Pages of the Melbourne telephone directory in the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide. I turned to the listing of medical practitioners and saw there were asterisks beside several of the names. As I copied them down with the phone numbers, I wondered how I was going to begin the long-distance conversation necessary to get an appointment.
The word ''abortion'' scarcely existed. Occasionally there was a reference in the newspapers to an ''illegal operation'' that had resulted in a woman's death or the arrest of a doctor, or both. It was a long time before I even vaguely understood what such an operation was since my mother was not willing to explain it to me. Even when I did know, I knew no one who had ever had one. Later, of course, women would talk openly about their abortions when they pressed for the laws to change to remove the fear and the risks and the financial exploitation that, in 1965, still went with terminating a pregnancy. If they could not find a doctor willing to risk his licence (in return for an exorbitant fee), many frantic women felt they had no choice but to try to ''get rid of it'' themselves. Countless women resorted to potions and tablets or, in absolute desperation, tried to induce a miscarriage by using a coathanger or similar sharp instrument. Each year in Australia in the 1960s, as many as 10 women died as a result.
I went back to my doctor. He was willing to prescribe contraceptives for single girls, which made him an out and out radical. However, he drew the line at abortion. He confirmed that I was pregnant but said there was nothing he could do to help if I planned to do something illegal.
I armed myself with a stack of two-shilling coins and went to a public phone box to make the trunk call to Melbourne. The woman who answered was reassuringly friendly. She gave me a date and time, then told me I had to bring cash on the day: the operation would cost £120. I was thunderstruck. This was far more than I had anticipated. There was no way I could raise that kind of money. My salary at the university library was only £15 a week. I told the woman I would need to look for someone cheaper. Kindly, she gave me a name. ''I think he charges about £60,'' she said.
A few weeks later, I was standing early one evening on the corner of Collins and Russell streets in Melbourne where, it had been prearranged, the doctor would pick me up. We drove for what seemed a long time to a surgery somewhere in the suburbs. I was blindfolded. Another doctor was waiting for us, but there was no one else around. I should have been frightened: no one in the world knew where I was. I did not let myself think about what would happen if something went wrong. I just wanted it to be over, the nausea and the pregnancy, the feeling of shame and guilt about what was to happen.
I undressed and climbed onto the table, noticing with horror the plastic bucket on the floor beneath. Suddenly, the reality of what was happening hit me. I was to have an anaesthetic and that was why the operation was still expensive. I did not know at the time that there were other, cheaper options, and I am glad that I didn't because I worry even today what I might have done. As I started to go under, I heard the two men discussing my body. They were speculating about what I would look like in a bikini.
After I woke up, one of the doctors drove me to a St Kilda flat rented by a girl I knew. She was a strict Catholic and, while willing to let me stay, she didn't want to know anything about why I was there. The flat was on the third floor and there was no lift. I was so groggy that the doctor had to practically carry me up the stairs. He then went away and came back with six large bottles of lemonade, telling my friend I would be very thirsty when I awoke. He also left the name and phone number of a Collins Street specialist in case anything ''went wrong''.
Two days later, I began to haemorrhage and suffer bad cramp-like pains. I went for a long walk through the gardens near the Shrine of Remembrance on St Kilda Road, hoping the exercise might help. It didn't. I felt absolutely alone. And scared. I rang the Collins Street doctor and he told me to come in the next day. It was a public holiday. His rooms were deserted. He was a horrible old man with a fat belly and heavy breathing that suggested catarrh. I felt inexplicably nervous being alone with him. He had not been present at the abortion but he acted as if he were the person who had organised things.
He gave me some tablets he said would stop the bleeding. He also told me he would pay me a commission if I sent other Adelaide girls to him. As I was leaving, he grabbed me and tried to kiss me. I was very pleased a few years later to read that he had been charged by the police when the Victorian abortion rackets were exposed.
I returned to Adelaide and started university. Two weeks later, I turned 20. For the first few weeks of my student life I walked around haemorrhaging. Instead of the excitement of starting a new phase in my life, I felt miserable and tainted, envious of all the other girls who seemed so carefree and full of life. Eventually, the bleeding forced me back to the doctor who had refused to help me get an abortion. He looked at me with increasing horror as I told my story.
''How long have you been bleeding?'' he exclaimed. He picked up the phone. ''I've got a girl here who's been mucked up in Melbourne,'' he told the North Terrace gynaecologist. ''Can you help her?''
A few days later, I was in the gynaecologist's rooms, hearing him tell me I had what was known as ''an incomplete abortion''. In other words, despite the pain and the trauma and the huge amount of money, the abortion had not been done properly. I needed to go into hospital for a D&C (dilatation and curettage). No wonder, I thought, shaking with rage, no wonder the Collins Street doctor was trying to buy me off. He knew. The old bastard, he knew.
The medical solution to my problem was not easy. I had no money, I explained to the doctor, because every penny I could lay my hands on had gone to pay for the interstate trip and the abortion. Nor, in those pre-Medicare days, did I have any separate health insurance; as a student who lived at home, my parents would need to sign the claim. I did not know what I was going to do. Then my luck changed.
This man whom I had met less than half an hour earlier arranged for me to be admitted to a large public hospital as a teaching patient, which meant there would be no charge. He also organised for it to be over Easter when there would be no students - and when my parents were planning a trip away so they would not know. He gave up several hours of his Easter holiday weekend to come and do the curettage. He never sent me a bill.
I have often wondered why this man did this for me. Perhaps he and some of his more enlightened colleagues recognised the damage that was being done to women by the outlawing of abortion. As my experience and that of countless others in those years demonstrated, making abortion illegal did not prevent women from seeking to end unwanted pregnancies. All it did was make abortions dangerous and expensive - and turned otherwise law-abiding people into criminals.
If the law had permitted the doctor to perform the D&C in a hospital in the first place, there would have been minimal if any medical risk. As it was, he performed exactly the same operation as I had paid £60 for in a back room in Melbourne. He completed legally the abortion the Crimes Act said I was not allowed to have.
Dangerous Remedy screens on ABC1 at 8.30pm on Sunday.