The opening scene of the movie is frightening. A desperate teenage girl has a hood thrown over her head as she is shoved into the back of a car and driven to a secret destination where an abortion is performed.

In a dingy room clearly rife with bacteria, the abortionist performs his duty with carelessness, his hardfaced offsider rough and mean with their tender, terrified patient.

It’s a “backyard abortion” gone wrong, and later the child dies in hospital with her distraught parents by her side.

“I had the same experience as the girl in the opening scene,” the academic Anne Summers (right) wrote yesterday.

“Being butchered by a backyard operator in Melbourne in the 1960s, being blindfolded before being driven to the suburban house where the abortion was performed.

“The only difference was that I did not die, because I was lucky enough to get professional medical help in time.

“It is incredible to think that it is only 40 years since the Victorian police controlled abortion in that State (the same happened in NSW) and desperate women, especially those who did not have the money for the qualified doctors operating out of private hospitals, risked their lives to end unwanted pregnancies.”

“I’m so glad the story of this awful era is finally being told.”

This story Summers speaks of is Dangerous Remedy, an ABC-TV telemovie screening this Sunday night. It is, at heart, the story of famed abortion crusader Dr Bertram Wainer who challenged entrenched police corruption to fight for reform in reproductive rights.

Although it’s an historical drama, producer Ned Landers says: “Abortion remains a very real issue for Australian women today. It was only two years ago in Queensland that a young woman and her boyfriend were prosecuted for using the abortion pill,” he said.

“In researching the film, women shared with me memories of the painful, dangerous and humiliating experiences they had suffered in seeking abortions.”

Certainly there are many such painful experiences captured in this excellent film.

“Abortion is always a bad thing,” the real Dr Wainer once said, but it was, he believed, preferable to have it regulated and safe than have it driven underground.

Jeremy Sims (pictured below, right) is compelling as the driven Dr Wainer, portrayed as a man deeply ambivalent about his life’s work in helping girls and women have access to safe abortion in a time when shame dictated so much of women’s sexuality.

Although he singlemindedly fought for women’s right to choose (assisted mightily by his wife and women’s rights activist Jo Wainer, played by Maeve Dermody), and for the notion that every child should be a wanted child, Wainer was clearly saddened by the need for abortion at all.

One particularly confronting scene of Dangerous Remedy, which is based on Wainer’s own book It Isn’t Nice, shows the doctor forcing his own young daughter to look at an aborted fetus in a jar. It illustrates so succinctly all the shades of grey that exist within the abortion debate.

Abortion, he tells his horrified daughter, “is the lesser of two evils.”

This is the deep and everlasting value of a program like Dangerous Remedy: it highlights complexity in a debate too often characterized by polar extremes, by black and white.

It’s also a sobering reminder that it is not so long since women’s repressed reproductive rights could lead to their deaths. There are still people who wish for this – for women’s rights to be repealed.

Right to Lifers would have you believe that women and men fighting for a women’s right to terminate a pregnancy celebrate abortion.

But as US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton once so very neatly put it: “I have met thousands and thousands of pro-choice men and women. I have never met anyone who is pro-abortion.”


Dangerous Remedy screens on ABC-TV this Sunday night at 8.30 pm, starring a brilliant cast including Jeremy Sims, Susie Porter, William McInnes, Maeve Dermody, and Gary Sweet.



Groundhog Day

Rape Pregnancy: “God’s Will”

“I Wanna Be a Babe”

Mary Robinson. How to Change the World


*Lucy (Editor of The Hoopla) is a journalist and editor with almost thirty years experience in newspapers and magazines in Sydney, London, and New York. She has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, Vogue Living, Australian Art Review, and Gourmet Traveller. Most recently the Books Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, she has also contributed to the non-fiction books, Australia Through Time, and What Women Want. You can follow her on Twitter: @lucykateclark.


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  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Sorry to go all George Lakoff here, but I loathe and detest the phrases “pro-choice” and “pro-life”.

    In the US, of course, where the debate is most polarised, those who call themselves “pro-life” tend to be pro-war, pro-death penalty, pro-drone strike and any number of other positions which don’t sound the slightest bit “pro-life” to me.

    Thankfully, it’s not that bad in Australia. Even in the US, there are a small number of notable exceptions, such as the actor Martin Sheen. (Whether you agree with him or not, everyone can appreciate the consistency.)

    But I especially hate the framing of “choice”. It doesn’t make sense to use that language for any other medical procedure that I’m aware of. Nobody has a “right” to “choose” antibiotics or chemotherapy.

    It seems to me that we really should be talking about pubic health, and appropriate medical care, and privacy, and informed consent, and the dignity of a patient. Isn’t that what it’s really about? Aren’t these things we can all agree are important values?

    • Reply November 1, 2012


      But you do have the right to choose whether or not you accept medical care. If you go to the doctor and are given a prescription for antibiotics and get it filled at the chemist and then take them then you have chosen to follow that course of treatment.

      The abortion debate is about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body in the case of a pregnancy that, for whatever reason, is not compatible with the woman’s life.

      • Reply November 1, 2012


        One of the reasons why I think that it makes more sense to think of this as an issue of public health and medical care is that it lets you see just how silly some of the arguments are when applied to other medical procedures.

        To me, the abortion debate is centrally about whether or not legislators can dictate what is and is not appropriate medical care for a patient, something which we normally (and rightly) consider to be a matter between a patient and their doctor.

        The government is not your doctor, does not know your medical history and is one of the least-qualified institutions for making decisions about your individual medical care.

        On the flip side, there are some very rare occasions there is a good reason for the law to draw the line, as in the case of antibiotic misuse, which has the potential to harm us all. And, of course, there’s always the complicating question of whether or not the public insurer wants to pay for a given procedure, as with non-medically-indicated cosmetic surgery.

        Did that make sense, or was I rambling again?

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Th whole pro-choice/anti-choice debate that is happening in the USA at the moment should be held up as a stark warning that a woman’s right to choose is more often than not a political decision. You can bet your bottom dollar that if a large, strong lobby group started lobbying the opposition to ban abortion, and the opposition believed they really needed those votes to win, they would make such a policy promise.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Call it right to life or anything you like but essentially it’s fascism – a hijack of women’s rights with a holier than thou twist.

    I was a young mother during the Joh years in Queensland and can remember how utterly horrified I was to hear Joh was considering jailing women caught having an abortion. He actually drew up sanctity of life legislation. this was during the 1980s, people!! Women were crossing the border to have an abortion.

    I still get furious just thinking about it. How dare he. How dare all these God botherers – get thee gone!

    I might add I have never had one or considered one but will defend a women’s rights in this respect until my dying breath. Anyone who reads history will know all the stories. Past time they were told before women are again forced to the barricades.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Rhoda, women still cross the border from Queensland to NSW sometimes to have abortions, because they can’t afford one north of the Tweed. And it was only in 2010 that a couple were charged for procuring an abortion – they both could have gone to jail if they hadn’t been acquitted. Ah, Queensland. Feminist paradise is ours, sisters!

  • Reply November 1, 2012

    Jill K

    My mum was taken to one of these guys by her parents in the 60s because of an unplanned pregnancy. She never got over it. The shame, the pain, often thinking “what would my child have been like today”. She developed anorexia nervosa afterwards and nearly died herself. She would likely not have chosen abortion herself had the decision been left in her hands as it should have been. Having said that, had abortion been safe and not steeped in stigma, she could have decided that she was not ready for motherhood as she was very young and very naiive and not in a position to provide the best care for her child. I have always been very strongly pro-choice. I would not impose judgment on anyone who felt that they were not in a position to have a child for whatever reason. My personal position has changed significantly over my life. In my early 20s I would have definitely strongly considered termination had I fallen pregnant unexpectedly as I didn’t believe that I was in a strong enough psychological or financial position to raise a child. In my late 20s and beyond I would not have considered abortion as my personal circumstances were such that I could support a child and was much more matue, in a settled relationship and financially more stable. It’s such a personal thing. It should be left to each person to weigh up everything in their lives and decided for themselves if they can go through with a pregnancy or go through the stressful process of termination.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Yes Kate I know ‘sigh’. And that poor girl risked 7 years in prison even though the ban on the drug she/partner imported was lifted – what – 2006? – 4 years before. And they were trying to tell us it was about the drug. A drug safer than viagra – or so I believe.

    The finger has always been wagged at women – ever since Eve.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    @Rhoda, they TOLD us it was about the drug, but she was charged with procuring an abortion, not with drug importation as they were claiming. Yes, it’s 7 years in jail. Horrendous, isn’t it? RU486 has been legal at a national level since 2006 but that was at odds with Qld law, despite the fact it’s a drug recommended by the World Health Organisation as an ‘essential medicine’ for developing countries, and has been taken by millions of women worldwide since the 1980s. The whole trial was a disgrace.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Disgrace indeed. Where do these people get off! They go to church Sundays and pretend to be good. Have the nerve to preach ethics, morals – pretend to know when life begins. As if they know the absolute. God has spoken.

    Spare me.

  • Reply November 1, 2012

    sue bell

    Since the beginning of time people, especially men, have tried to control women’s bodies. The basic tenant of feminism is each woman has the right to control her own body. A caring, compassionate society makes sure any medical needs are easily and safely available. This includes not only abortion but also childbirth and the right to chose your own time and means of dying.
    This film is necessary and Bertram Wainer is a hero. This will bring up seriously sad memories for many, many women, those who had unsafe abortions, those who could not get one and for the relatives of those women who died.
    This film will bring to the surface again all the hatred and shame that was directed at women wanting a termination and remember not all of them were unmarried mothers, many were married women facing their third, fourth or more pregnancies.
    As women we must be constantly vigil against those who would control us. The churches and politicians are not to be trusted and we need to be prepared to come out fighting, there has always been a war on women, this is a period of uneasy peace and we have reason to fear the American religious right.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    In my neck of the woods, girls would ‘go to stay’ somewhere, have their baby and then return home. There were also stories of dead babies buried in gardens. It was well known that backyard abortionists existed but they were mostly older women who also practiced midwifery, not evil men with bacteria that was ‘clearly rife.’ I’d hate to think how deadly this naked-to-the-eye bacteria was!

    I have never heard of women being abducted and violated against their will. Who was responsible for this? Their pro-choice parents?

    In a time when women were between a rock and a hard place, perhaps those who had their live babies taken against their will were better off than I realised.

    Perhaps the loony Catholic parents weren’t so cruel after all.

  • Reply November 2, 2012


    I have long heard people describe themselves as pro-abortion and they always meant it in the sense that the proceedure should be available to women if they so choose. So just as I describe a person as dead or died rather than “passed”, I understand the use of the term “pro-abortion”.
    I am a passionate supporter of women’s and girls’ reproductive rights and am alarmed at the continued questioning of those rights in the US. It’s such a blatant example of the idea that women and their bodies must be controlled by men – and it’s 2012!

  • Reply November 2, 2012

    coffee needed

    It is important that a woman have the right to choose for herself whether to continue a pregnancy or not. We get up in arms over other cultures mistreatment of women, claiming how great we are that women have rights and freedom to make their own choices. Yet on this issue, something very central to a woman’s person, people want to take this away and enforce their own moral standards. I could never abort a baby, but I will always stand up for the right for any woman to have a safe, supported abortion, if that is their well informed decision. One I hope my daughter never has to face, but if she does, she will not be scared and on her own.

  • Reply November 2, 2012


    Abortion or compulsory pregnancy?

  • Reply November 2, 2012


    Anyway,I gather from Jo Wainer’s recent remarks on radio national(life matters) that Victoria has achieved the high water mark legislatively , by taking abortion out of the criminal courts and puttting abortion in the medical arena…

  • Reply November 3, 2012

    Tony W

    “It’s such a blatant example of the idea that women and their bodies must be controlled by men – and it’s 2012!”

    No Tracy, controlled by “society”. Many women are anti-abortion too. Some of the most vigorous “pro-life” campaigners are women – Margaret Tighe springs to mind.

    These backward notions are rooted in religion, which itself is rooted in human evolutionary necessities – in this case control of reproduction.

    But you’re right insofar as patriarchy made the rules, and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” has never been enforced equally for men.

    Another good rule is “Thou shalt not kill”, but unfortunately a bunch of celibate men in Rome decided this applies equally to a collection of cells in-utero. Thus we find Religion and contraception forever incompatible – as reiterated by the Vatican in 1997: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception.”

    Unfortunately the world is full of God-fearing folks, and some of them fear God so much they feel compelled to enforce “God’s Word” in the world. I have no doubt Tony Abbott felt duty bound by God to block RU486, on pain of eternal damnation for his own soul.

    But what really pisses these blokes off is that WOMEN now have the means to control human reproduction. After all, it’s pretty clear where God rates women in the scheme of things: “Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house; nor his wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

    As you say Tracy, it’s scary to see women’s right to control their own bodies being questioned in the 21st century.

    One thing I don’t understand though – why are there still so many surgical abortions? Surely parents only have to educate their daughters about abortifacients and they could avoid these traumatic procedures. Or is the hand of religion at work here again in families and it gets left too late?

  • Reply November 3, 2012


    Tony your post reminded me of the Aboriginal abortifiacient, eucalyptus gamophylla. Have no idea of its efficacy but believe they used to also smoke the vagina.

    Abortion didn’t become illegal in England until 1803. Now why was that??? I mention England because in 1803 Australia was a colony.

    • Reply November 4, 2012


      Disclaimer: I don’t know why abortion was made illegal in 1803. The answer is probably isn’t simple.

      Having said that, there was a movement in the 19th century by doctors (who weren’t just men, they were gentlemen) clamping down on anyone who wasn’t a doctor performing anything which resembled surgery.

      If that was a factor, then it’s a combination of bad motives (patriarchy and trade protectionism) and good motives (honestly wanting to protect patients from, in their opinion, untrained and uncertified practitioners).

  • Reply November 3, 2012

    Tony W

    Rhoda, I think you’ll find abortion was always illegal in England, just that it was dealt with under Church law in ecclesiastical courts. 1803 was probably just the first government law.

    Since then the UK has legalized abortion (1967) and the C of E has a less rigid position than RC, so they don’t seem to have this debate. Ireland of course is very problematic, as are countries where they emigrated in large numbers, esp. USA and Australia, where large Italian populations also spread Catholicism. The situation in Latin America is extremely bad, thanks to the Spanish spreading Catholicism, and appalling in Africa, thanks to catholic missions. Muslims on the other hand have no problems with abortion, Islam allows it up to 4 months and potentially beyond.

    It really is just a silly religious debate, and as you suggest there have been many natural abortifacients used throughout human history. I believe some are quite effective but toxicity to the mother is the main problem.

  • Reply November 4, 2012


    Many years ago when I was a student nurse with only a few days experience in the O.T. I was called on to assist a Surgeon perform an emergency hysterectomy on an early-stage pregnant mother of seven. She had multiple medical problems, and it was a life/death situation. Luckily she lived.

    I was extremely upset to know that all the other nursing staff available had refused to help due to religious or other right-to-life beliefs. I wondered if their God would have been happier to see the mother die, and leave seven children motherless. The Surgeon and the Anaesthetist had a few choice words to say on that subject!

    A friend of mine worked in the early days with Dr. Weiner, when he was dodging the police, and told me hair-raising stories of rushing women across town in cars, taxis etc., often padded with blood soaked towels, to present at the Royal Women’s as ‘miscarriages’. I’m worried that those days could return in the USA.

  • Reply November 4, 2012


    Tony, the question was rhetorical. I was thinking that it was about procedures and proof.

    Lord Ellenborough who was instrumental in drawing up the Malicious Shooting or Stabbing Act 1803 which clarified the law relating to abortion and who was Lord Chief Justice of England convicted a man called Daniel Eaton for printing part three of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, calling it blasphemy.

    The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an open letter in defence of Eaton. Shelley said in this letter, ” Alas! the crime of enquiry is one which religion never has forgiven. Implicit faith and fearless enquiry have in all ages been irreconcilable enemies.”

  • Reply November 4, 2012

    sue Bell

    When I was pregnant with a much wanted child I was so ill that I was placed in a medically induced coma. After a week my husband was told that the baby had to be delivered. It was very dangerous for the baby but he was told I would die if the pregnancy did not stop and in this day and age we save the mother not the child. The horror of the ultra religious right not recognising that the mother, a grown woman has a greater right to life than a foetus or even, as in my case a thirty week old gestation baby, is sickening. Yes we lost our beautiful daughter after three days (through medical mismanagement) but I went on to work, to learn, to teach and to have two more beautiful children. I am glad my husband had no choice in who to save.

  • Reply November 4, 2012

    Tony W

    Sorry Rhoda, I misread your question. I see what you were getting at now.

    Shelley put it well I think, and two centuries later it’s truer than ever.

  • Reply November 5, 2012


    “One particularly confronting scene of Dangerous Remedy, which is based on Wainer’s own book It Isn’t Nice, shows the doctor forcing his own young daughter to look at an aborted fetus in a jar. It illustrates so succinctly all the shades of grey that exist within the abortion debate.

    Abortion, he tells his horrified daughter, “is the lesser of two evils.”

    This is the deep and everlasting value of a program like Dangerous Remedy: it highlights complexity in a debate too often characterized by polar extremes, by black and white.”

    It certainly does. It highlights the fact that even people who support our rights demand guilt and blame. Because if women weren’t required to treat a wanted abortion as an occasion of great sadness, every time (and of course sometimes it is, if the pregnancy is wanted but some disastrous medical or social condition stops it going ahead) then there will be… ABORTION PARTIES!!!. Of course this was the 1970s, but this conditional support of abortion (Just as long as you’re miserable about it and feel suitable self-hatred) continues for many people.

  • Reply November 6, 2012


    here is a question. imagine a government agency deciding that you are unfit and therefore you have to abort your baby.
    would the right to lifers then be pro choice?

    if I am forced to carry this unwanted baby are they going to be there to help when i am suffering from morning sickness – which for some is all day sickness?
    are they going to help with my other children who need to go to school, sport, and all those other after school activities.
    will they help with the extra money needed to support this unplanned baby?

    will they be there with me when i am giving birth?

    so if you answer no to any of these question keep out of my life. until you have lived with an unwanted pregancy you cannot know what its like. this is my life and i am allowed to make my own choices.

    there is a theory that those who believe need to. i dont know what i believe but its not what is pedalled out by a church which has proven to be corrupt. hiding behind the confessional and allowing paedophiles to keep working by shuffling them on to different parishes. how can they be our moral compass.

    so those who say they a doing gods work or speaking for god are lying because i have yet to see proof anywhere that god exists.

  • Reply November 6, 2012

    Tony W

    “Abortion, he tells his horrified daughter, “is the lesser of two evils.”

    “It highlights the fact that even people who support our rights demand guilt and blame.”

    No way Helen. Wainer’s statement was in the context of the scene, in which the mother had nearly haemorrhaged to death, and the daughter had cheerfully dismissed abortion as “Good”.

    Wainer was right – we DO need to avoid casualizing abortion, for lots of reasons. He was in no way seeking to “demand guilt and blame”. Nor do any other professionals in the field – they simply counsel the mother to consider their options carefully, in their own best interests. It’s not uncommon for women to have regrets later in life.

    The central message in this film was delivered to the protesters outside, when Wainer angrily accused them: “Now you have a right to your conscience, but you DON’T have a right to force it on others. Shame on you.”

    • Reply November 7, 2012


      Yes, I agree with this.

      Abortion is the lesser of two evils in the same way that amputation is the lesser of two evils. Nobody (I hope) would argue that amputation is a good thing. However, it is often better than the alternative.

  • Reply December 17, 2012


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