On this page: Eileen Capocchi; Jo Wainer; Yvonne Smith;
Jean Taylor; Lynette
See also: Women's
- We were also very active on the abortion issue and
support the right of women to choose whether to continue a pregnancy.
That was a very hard, long, bitter campaign.
At one time some of our women and women from UAW stood
up at a Right to Life meeting and stated they had had an abortion. If
it had been pursued they could have gone to jail. There were some very
brave women there. They were courageous. They just stood up and said,
"I have had an abortion. Arrest me". They were
just absolutely wonderful. I never had that courage. The
whole campaign was courageous. The things they - the Right to Life - did
to the Wainer's and the other clinics and the poor women! Right to Life
did some dreadful stuff, terrible stuff.
... In our time, it was such a risky thing if you couldn't
deal with a pregnancy. I was in the Women's Hospital for three weeks with
what they called a missed abortion. The foetus had developed to
ten weeks and then stopped, but I didn't abort. There wasn't the technology
then to confirm that this had happened then so we tried to maintain the
pregnancy. For two weeks I was in the abortion
ward. Everything that was a miscarriage, whether spontaneous or induced,
went there. It even had a padded cell. I was the healthiest person in
the ward and it was horrific. It was absolutely horrific.
You would wake up in the night to find doctors and nurses
around a woman who had obviously induced an abortion and was in strife
- hemorrhaging and septicaemia and so forth. You would go back to sleep
and the next morning when you woke up, the woman would be gone - another
There was one woman in there who was in a terrible situation.
She was young, she had two children and couldn't cope with a third. When
she told her doctor how they had no money, could not cope and couldn't
afford this pregnancy and couldn't cope with another child, her doctor
apparently said he would send her to the Women's Hospital where she would
get help. He actually sent her there because he knew they would keep her
in so she couldn't induce an abortion. There was
a woman in the padded cell - a migrant woman. I don't know what had happened
Being in there was the worst experience of my life.
I was still at university, as part of my student activism I went along
to the inaugural meeting of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA).
Abortion had come up as an issue in the mid 1960's as part of the student
rebellion which had emanated from Britain and Europe.
up to the meeting held, I think, in the Uniting Church in the city. There
were about 400 people there. I can't recall the detail but I ended up
elected secretary. I was young - wet behind the ears at one level
but at another level I had years of student activism behind me. After
that ALRA used to meet at my home. My parents had gone to Sydney and left
their home for their daughters to live in while we completed our tertiary
education, and these meetings were not a respectable thing to do - we
lived opposite the Deputy Governor.
hard to reflect back on the need to be proper. When I was growing up in
the 1950's you had to wear a hat and gloves when going in to town by tram.
Your skirt had to be exactly the right length. I remember my mother down
on her hands and knees with a ruler measuring my skirt length to make
sure it was exactly right. Men had to wear a white shirt and a tie. They
were equally constrained. They just didn't have to wear the terrible shoes
very middle class and a reform group. One of the things we decided to
do was to brief the parliamentarians in the Victorian Parliament. Gareth
Evans was a member and he drew up a model Act, which we put before the
politicians. We put together a series of Fact Sheets called "A for Abortion"
and we gave them to each of the politicians to use if the topic should
arise and they needed some data. There wasn't much data around at the
time, I have to say, but we gave them what there was.
my first public speaking then. I remember speaking to the Rotarians -
quite a daunting task for a young woman, to speak to a group of disbelieving
men about a topic which then was taboo. Then
you couldn't use the word 'abortion' in public. I knew that, I was working
for the ABC. You had to use euphemisms if you referred to it at all -
which we didn't. It was absolutely subterranean female behaviour, completely
this guy, a doctor, joined ALRA and started coming to meetings. His name
was Bert Wainer. He sat and listened for a while then he said "I think
we should just do a test case". We
all looked at him askance and said "You can't do that, that is breaking
the law". He
said "I know. Then they will arrest us and we can argue it in front of
a jury. Good people don't get sent to jail for those sort of things."
horrified. I was delegated by ALRA to go and tell him he would have to
resign. He was a general practitioner in St Kilda. He had left the army
just a couple of years before with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and
set up a general practice in St Kilda where he cared for the poor and
the sad, basically. He did what most of the G.P.'s in town did when it
came to abortion, he inquired amongst his colleagues and did what they
did, which was to refer the women.
at that time - 1969 - that the Victorian Police (under Inspector Holland)
raided the doctors who did abortions and arrested them. There were about
12 doctors who provided medically qualified and very competent abortion
services - all illegal at the time.
one who went to trial was Dr Ken Davidson, and that ended up with the
Menhennitt ruling. One of the other people they charged was Dr Van Rennan,
who had referred to one of the other doctors they raided. He was charged
with conspiracy. Bert
Wainer was outraged at that. It was doing no more than he was doing. He
organized a support fund for Dr Van Rennan and he recruited me to go and
knock on the doors of doctors and try to get them to contribute to the
support fund. Given that abortion was not a word you could use in public,
it was an incredibly difficult thing to do. I did it.
was sent to this radical, wild man to tell him he had to resign from ALRA
if he was going to talk about illegal activities and run test cases. He
just laughed. He
said he would start his own organisation and asked if I would like to
come out to dinner.I did and we subsequently married in 1972. Abortion
dominated our lives for a long time after that.
dominated our lives for a long time after that.
1969 and the Menhennit ruling abortion was completely illegal. It was
conducted clandestinely. There were twelve doctors who provided reasonably
safe, reasonably competent abortions, but at a very high price. You found
them through an underground network - taxi drivers, pubs, mates (it was
the usually the responsibility of the man involved to find the abortion
provider and to pay for the abortion. The woman just risked her body,
her life and her dignity).
to that there were non-medically trained abortion providers, the most
famous of whom was a butcher by trade who operated on kitchen tables around
Footscray. Of course, not being a doctor he didn't have access to anaesthetics
so he used to stuff a rag in the woman's mouth to stop her screaming and
disturbing the neighbours.
providers got into trouble, they couldn't call an ambulance and have the
woman admitted to hospital because they would have gone to jail for fifteen
years or longer, whether a doctor or not. Women died. We will never know
how many as they all had body disposal systems - dump them in Port Phillip
Bay, bury them in Sherbrooke forest, arrange with the local undertaker
to bury two bodies in one coffin.
a very dangerous and totally humiliating experience. It didn't stop women
from having abortions, but it was very, very bad and a lot of women died.
There was a whole ward at the Royal Women's Hospital devoted to women
who were there as a result of damage from abortion - they had a thirty
bed ward dedicated to it. There was a special room set aside for women
who were dying. Septacaemia and gangrene were the major risks in the pre-antibiotic
era. When I
interviewed him, the medical superintendent at the time told me that he
will always remember the smell. Desperate women would self induce and
he remembered a woman who came in with an umbrella sticking through her
did use wire coathangers, they did drink gin and have hot baths and they
did jump off high dangerous places. They hurt themselves a lot.. It was
the second highest cause of maternal mortality in the 1930's and 1940's
in Australia - and that is only the recorded deaths.
a desperate business. In 1969 Mr Justice Menhennit had to give direction
to the jury who were trying Dr Ken Davidson who was charged with unlawful
abortion. Dr Davidson defended himself by saying he had done the abortion
but it was necessary to protect the woman's life. Justice Menhennit had
to direct the jury what a legal abortion was, because you only went to
jail if you had done an illegal abortion. This was the law passed in 1862
in the UK - a previous century and another continent. It was desperately,
desperately out of touch.
the jury that it was legal to terminate a pregnancy if it was to protect
a woman's life or health from dangers other than the normal dangers of
pregnancy. The jury acquited him and that became the de facto law. However,
to this day, the actual statute law hasn't changed. It is still in the
Crimes Act, Section 54 and 55. ...
In the meantime I had used some of the findings of my Masters research
to make a submission to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships which
was formed by Federal Parliament as a result of a move by David McKenzie
to get abortion legalized.
able to collect and present some real data as I had access to the records
of Bert's clinic, called the Fertility Control Clinic. Because abortion
had been illegal before, it was the first time anybody had actually seen
real data about a general population of women having abortion. ...
When the partnership broke down, I left and reconstituted myself as an
academic. I wanted to go to the country to do menopause. I had visions
of sitting in a cottage in a forest on a mountain doing menopause, the
transition from mother to crone.
I got to Gippsland I found they had cut all the forests down, they had
logged them, but I was able to find a cottage by a lake. That was as close
as I could get to a cottage in the forest and I discovered that when you
are an academic you have to work very hard, too. I
lived in Gippsland on my own for six years while I rebuilt my life. I
went through this journey of transition from mother to crone. I am still
doing that, but I am almost there. In that time abortion came before the
High Court and I led the Women's Electoral Lobby resistance to that from
my office in Moe.
quite interesting. In the end it wasn't continued, so there was no outcome,
but it was a case where a woman sued her doctor for not diagnosing her
as pregnant in time to have a termination, after she had been to him three
times saying she thought she was pregnant.
Bishops said they had something to say and were made Friends of the Court,
which means they had a right to speak, but I could see that nobody was
representing the woman. I organized a barrister and a firm of solicitors
who represented us 'pro bono'. I was able to call in contacts from all
around the world for support. It was quite an interesting process. That
was the last major intervention I have had in relation to termination
Many UAW members, including myself, took part in women's
liberation consciousness raising, as well as the large public gatherings
which discussed sexual liberation issues, contributing strongly to the
body of evidence on abortion, marriage, the nuclear family.
The UAW was active in countering Right to Life demonstrations
at clinics and hospitals and Betty Olle (Sec. UAW) established, with Ruth
Schnookal of Women's Electoral Lobby, and others, The Right to Choose
Many women were looking
for a sympathetic doctor so they could have an abortion and the Women's
Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC) was set up in 1972 to campaign for the
repeal of the anti-abortion laws and freely available contraception. Because
Dr Wainer had opened his Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne, and because
of the Menhennitt ruling, at that stage women were able to get abortions
at a reasonably affordable price and without fear of being arrested, but
abortions were and still are illegal under the law.
We encouraged women
to let us know what their experience had been when we referred them, so
we could have a resource file of doctors who could do abortions or other
medical procedures or consultations in a sympathetic way. In the same
way we also had a file on doctors who were less than sympathetic or downright
incompetent and dangerous.
We were challenging
sexist attitudes and ways of looking at the world. Doctors and other professionals
were often quite sexist and wouldn't give women information, so we were
encouraging women to ask their doctor questions to find out what was happening
From this women started
to be involved in their own health care, in ways we hadn't previously.
This led, for example, to the Women's Health Centre which opened in in
Johnston Street, Collingwood in 1974 and after that closed down in 1976,
Bon Hull's book, IN OUR OWN HANDS - A Women's Health Manual, was published
by Hyland House in 1980.
The New Testament According to the Lyons Forum :
An Australia Bereft of Abortion Rights?
by Lynette J. Dumble
Excerpt from (Political Environments Issue #5, Fall 1997)
Following the 1995 United Nations-convened 4th Conference
on Women, it was plain that fundamentalist and population control forces
were a double challenge to women's reproductive freedom, which includes
the inalienable right to abortion that is lawful, safe, and affordable. In Australia, where 80,000 to 100,000 abortions
are performed annually, abortion is the second most common therapeutic
Medical speak has an identical translation of both "abortion",
with its connotation of deliberate impropriety, and "miscarriage", with
its implication of biological mishap, which defines a pregnancy termination
as the "expulsion of the contents of a pregnant woman's womb at any period
of gestation short of full term". "Abortion" is
not however a legal term, and in Australia there are no uniform guidelines
on what constitutes lawful abortion. Legislative provisions in each Australian
jurisdiction make "unlawful" abortion a criminal offense, which, in theory,
carries penalties of seven years to life imprisonment.
In February of 1996, following a decade in opposition,
the Liberal-National Party Coalition [the Australian political equivalent
of the US Republicans and UK Tories] was elected to federal government.
Within a year, the Coalition plunged the nation back into the far right
climate which has frequently surfaced in the two centuries following European
Amidst renewed attacks on Aboriginal land title, rising
anti-migrant racism, and a war against youth to aged, unemployed, uneducated
and chronically ill , , the speculated engine room of the Coalition, known
as the Lyons Forum, commenced systematically to reduce women's access
to their tenuous legal right to abortion.
ABORTION LAW IN AUSTRALIA:
In some states the criminal law has been codified, so
that provisions grant a statutory defense to the crime of abortion. Overall,
an abortion is deemed lawful when a woman obtains two medical opinions
to certify that a pregnancy termination is necessary to save her life
or prevent her suffering physical or mental injury. A 1995 survey of more
than two thousand women attending abortion clinics in one Australian state
illustrates the blind eye that the law casts on its own criteria of lawfulness;
only 12 per cent of the women surveyed at multiple centers over a six
week period underwent abortions that complied with the health-related
Recent abortion disputes in the Australian Courts prompted
the claims manager for the United Medical Defense, Dr. Megan Keaney, to
clarify the legality of abortion for medical practitioners. She
explained that the ensuing judgments had not altered the existing law[s],
and that abortion remained a statutory criminal offense. In many ways,
Keaney's comment identifies the realities of Australian abortion statutes
- reasonable protection for medical practitioners, but a continuing criminalization
Jo Wainer, arguing for the Victorian Women's Electoral
Lobby in 1996 submissions to the High Court and National Health and Medical
Research Council [NHMRC], has highlighted that the criminal code offends
women, and is in conflict with the well-embedded ethical principle that
decisions ought to be made by those most affected.
With respect to abortion, undoubtedly those bearing the
brunt of the decision-making process, both physically and psychologically,
are women. Yet, within the eyes of the law, the mandatory medical certification
which places abortion within the law reduces a woman to the rank of a
child or the mentally infirmed, and deems her incapable of making an adult
THE LYONS FORUM:
Formed in 1992, the Lyons Forum is made up of Coalition
members from the upper [Senate] and lower [House of Representatives] levels
of the Australian Parliament. Membership is largely secret, but an estimated
forty to fifty members make the Lyons Forum the largest political sect
in federal politics, one that represents, at a minimum, thirty, and at
a maximum, forty per cent of the governing Coalition. Amongst
the group's publicly known members, its first chairman, Chris Miles, is
the current Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, John Howard.
While in opposition, Howard was known nationally for his anti-Asian immigration
Since coming to office, he has risen to international
prominence; initially because of his failure to curtail the blatant racism
of another federal politician, Pauline Hanson, and her One Nation Party
, and, more recently, because of his affronts to Australia's indigenous
people - first, with his ten point plan which waters down, and opens avenues
to extinguish, High Court-awarded Native land rights, and second, with
his outright refusal to issue a national apology for the government-orchestrated
genocide which authorized institutional authorities to steal Aboriginal
children from their parents over four decades.
Miles himself is best known from his days in opposition
when he advocated the continued criminalization of homosexual acts between
consenting adults in the Australian state of Tasmania. Back
in 1994, when Justice Michael Kirby, now on the High Court bench, visited
Tasmania to explode some of myths around homosexuality, and speak up for
gay rights, Miles accompanied Kirby's opponents, who included Senator
Eric Abetz and other Coalition cronies, who opposed Kirby at the public
meeting with a variety of fundamentalisms and homophobic vitriol.
Senator Abetz has since succeeded Miles as chair of the
Lyons Forum. He too sits cozily with the Prime Minister, and was Howard's
choice to chair the highly influential Senate Legal and Constitutional
Legislation Committee. Abetz stands accused of
orchestrating the Senate enquiry and report which conjured support for
the anti-euthanasia lobby, and which subsequently led to the enactment
of a Coalition bill, masqueraded as a private member's bill, vetoing the
Northern Territory's voluntary euthanasia legislation.
The private member fronting for the anti-euthanasia bill,
Kevin Andrews, is identified as a core member of the Lyons Forum, as too
is Howard's treasurer, Peter Costello. Professing
to be about strengthening family based on Christian values, the Lyons
Forum has released only one publication, "Empowering Australian Families".
Issued after its own National Inquiry into Families and the Economy, the
verses within the second chapter blame individualism, mass media, political
correctness, and the feminist movement [my emphasis] for what the Forum
views as the destruction of traditional family values in present day society.
The new testament according to the Lyons Forum claims
that feminism [and the sexual revolution of the 1960s] has created a new
culture, one which regards children to be a burden, and has increased
the ratio of single parent families and de facto relationships, escalated
the number of working women, lowered the status of marriage, and is to
blame for the ease and frequency of divorce.
Australian Democrat Senator John Woodley, the outgoing
president of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, argues that the Lyons
Forum betrays its professed Christian ethos, raising not a whisper against
a number of legislations passed by the Howard administration which fly
in the face of Judaeo-Christian ethics. Woodley,
the first ordained minister to serve on the Australian Senate, is at odds
with the Lyons Forum's "narrow concerns" and "preoccupation with matters
of sexuality" in relation to matters such as abortion, child care, censorship
and homosexuality, and cites slashes to migrant and unemployment welfare
as examples of legislation which contradict Christian values of social
In February 1997, anti-abortion devotee, (Senator) Harradine,
played a major role in Melbourne endocrinologist John Funder's disinvitation
to become the next director of Australia's peak health and research body,
the NHMRC. Because of Funder's pro-RU486 position,
Richard Larkins, from the University of Melbourne's department of medicine
at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, was instead substituted. Before the dust
had settled, Larkins proclaimed that it was time to move on.
Few, if any, feminists would agree; both Funder and Larkins
have prompted feminist displeasure at various stages of their careeers,
and doubts linger whether either learned from their individual experiences. By May of 1997, Larkins demonstrated that abortion
reform is an unlikely priority now that he has taken the reins, as the
NHMRC logo was promptly removed from an abortion report sanctioned by
NHMRC's own women's health committee when under the leadership of previous
director, Sydney nephrologist Judith Whitworth. Harradine
denied any role in scuttling the report, but Dr. Margie Ripper, a feminist
academic from the University of Adelaide contributing to the report, is
quoted as saying that the study had been downgraded by political pressure
and forces outsdie the NHMRC .
The NHMRC fiascoes appear outrageous examples of the
Coalition bowing to the Harradine morality, that of an independent senator
who attracts only 12 per cent of the vote in a single, and indeed hardly
populous, state. Alternatively, the Lyons Forum may have preferred their
low profile within the Coalition, as Harradine copped the public flack
for imposing an anti-abortion righteousness on the entire country.
Whichever, it is equally outrageous that NHMRC policy,
which affects all of the country's citizens, was made without consideration
for the 51 per cent of the population who happen to be women. Both
the cut to Family Planning Australia's federal funding and the Therapeutic
Goods Amendment Bill contravene the 1996 Amsterdam Declaration on Abortion
which calls on all governments "to advocate and defend legal, voluntary,
safe and humane abortion provision to all women in need of it, as an integral
part of reproductive health care." Taken together
with the NHMRC controversies, these chapters paint dark prospects for
abortion rights in Australia, as the nation contends with an onslaught
of Lyons Forum-Harradine fundamentalism.
With special thanks to Lynda Crowley-Smith, Lecturer
in Law at James Cook University in Townsville, for her verbal and written
explanations of abortion statutes in Australia at state and territory
levels, and to Senator John Woodley from the Australian Democrats, and
Jodie Brough from the Canberra Bureau of the Sydney Morning Herald, for
sharing their research on the Lyons Forum.
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