Australia: "Dangerous Remedy", a stark reminder of the rare courage of Dr. Bertram Wainer & Print E-mail

 allies who combated Govt & Police corruption to end Victoria’s backyard abortions


The ABC telemovie event Dangerous Remedy tells the fascinating story of Dr Bertram Wainer. Living and working in Melbourne in the 1960s, Dr Wainer put his life at risk to expose police corruption in an effort to change the law on abortion and put an end to the illegal operations that were killing young women.

It’s a truly inspiring story. Dr Wainer’s determination, even when his own life and that of his family’s was threatened, never faltered. He was living proof that one person can make a difference and change the status quo.

With the support of Dr Wainer’s family, the filmmakers have endeavoured to capture the essence of his struggle to expose police corruption and change the law.

Starring Jeremy Sims, Susie Porter, William McInnes, Maeve Dermody, Peter O’Brien and Gary Sweet, Dangerous Remedy is an intelligent thriller with danger, suspense, complex characters, contradictions and romance.

Watch HERE


For Melbourne, as for much of the western world, the 1960s were a time of social upheaval. The establishment and the power brokers came up against the progressive movement. The sight of tens of thousands marching in the streets in protest was increasingly common. Various issues were on the minds of Melbournians: Capital punishment, the Vietnam War, the rights of Indigenous People, immigration, equal rights for women, and the legalisation of abortion. Suits were out, long hair and flared jeans were in, and many young people questioned what they saw as the superficiality and materialism of contemporary life.

Conservative Prime Minster Robert Menzies had been in power for a record term, yet the values and beliefs of Australians were rapidly moving away from tradition. Menzies resigned in 1966; his successor, Harold Holt, went missing at Cheviot Beach in 1967.

Australian women questioned the restrictive roles assigned to them and marched in protest to gain equal rights. The contraceptive pill was introduced in the early '60s and had a significant effect on sexual freedom, which in turn sparked much moral debate about pre-marital sex and promiscuity.

It was just after this period, in 1973, that abortion campaigner, Bertram Wainer, came to speak at Dangerous Remedy producer, Ned Lander's high school.

As Ned tells it, 'I must have been 16 or 17 and he told us the story of what he'd been through - the whole story of backyard abortion and the police involvement. He was wearing a bulletproof vest when he spoke to us. He was a big character, someone who left an impression on you.'

Ned Lander first came up with the idea of making a film about Wainer when he was still at film school in the mid 1970s, but events were too recent and political sensitivities meant that the timing wasn't right. Years later, he was in Melbourne and by chance walked past Wainer's funeral. He went into the church and he again had 'that sense that this was really an extraordinary person'.

Lander took the idea to writer Kris Wyld. Wyld says, 'We talked about the idea: Can one man make a difference? And every scene comes back to that theme.' She goes on, 'I used my police contacts to set up some research, to interview some people on the dark side. That was influential in the way we shaped the characters. And the Wainer families - the children and the two wives - they were incredibly impressive people. Through the children I really got the flavour of Bert. I sensed the power and the audaciousness, the daring, the doggedness, the gutsiness - the bullheadedness of the man. And I admired him. It was love at first sight!'

Lander and Wyld also interviewed women who had personal experience of backyard abortionists. Wyld says, 'For any woman to have to go through that would be a lifelong trauma that you could not recover from. It's barbaric to think of the shame that a woman would have to go through to have a sex life. These things actually pushed the women's movement. There was so much injustice in the way that women had to confront life.'

Injustice is a powerful theme in Dangerous Remedy. Wyld continues, 'The stories that we heard would horrify people today. A chemist who had some evidence that was not conducive to a police standpoint, shoved inside a mental institution, to silence him and discredit him in court. People just disappearing... Corruption was rife. And it's hard for us today to get a feel for the magnitude of what Wainer did, what he was up against.'

The social background to the story is fascinating, but the personal side draws Lander too. As he says, 'When I was younger the point that was interesting for me was Bert Wainer's role as a reformer, but as I've become older I've become more interested in him as a father and as a man who paid a very high price to bring about that reform, and how it's affected his kids.'


Dangerous Remedy was shot entirely on location in Melbourne.

The story is set firmly in the 1960's and all departments ran with the challenges and opportunities presented by creating a period thriller. The locations, production design, costume, makeup and vehicles were meticulously researched to create the world of Dr Bertram Wainer.

The story is set in the two layers of 1960's Melbourne - the underworld of back alleys and gambling dens, and the upper world with its corridors of power and legitimacy.

Costume designer Jeanie Cameron said, "We had access to reference photographs of the real people and did a lot of research about the period and the actual people. We tried to stay close to the feeling of the real people but rather than try to create carbon copies of the real people, the costume design attempts to honour the the essence of their characters. For instance, through our research we know Susie's character, Peggy, was known for her glamour and fun and she had a real spark about her, and so her costume was created to convey that sense of who Peggy was. It was a fantastic challenge, and something that the actors enjoyed and embraced with us. Some of the garments were originals from the period we were able to source, but many were created for the production.

"The story is set in a long hot summer, and at that time men dressed in stiff woolen suits. The costume can add so much authenticity to performance, and Jeremy and William were dressed in the style of the time, complete with hats. Ned Lander explains, 'We met so many people who knew Wainer in our research that we had a real insight into world we were creating.

'It's been my great fortune to work with a brilliant team to deliver this extraordinary story. Writer Kris Wyld in developing the script, whose strong sense of narrative and subtlety of approach has delivered a great screenplay. Ken Cameron, who is one of most accomplished directors in Australian film and television, and Line Producer, Lisa Wang, who helped me put together a wonderful team to make the show,' he said.

Add to this a great cast of some of the best talent from Australian screens: Jeremy Sims, Susie Porter, William McInnes, Maeve Dermody, Mark Leonard Winter, Peter O'Brien and many others.


Jeremy Sims was cast as the larger-than-life champion of social justice, Dr Bert Wainer. 'Although there is a slight physical resemblance, what is amazing is the strong pugnacious fighter quality, the essence of Bert that Jeremy could summon up. Bert had courage and certainty and compassion, but he never lost his sense of humour, and Jeremy brings all of that to the role,' said Ned Lander.

Bert Wainer was also possessed of great personal charm. As Jeremy Sims says, 'He was a charismatic man, he was fond of attention and he was a big personality. He was a bulldog and fighter, and he liked nothing more than to be told he can't do something.

Jeremy continues, 'That phrase 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man' is true. Social change requires a certain personality type - and it may be someone peaceful like Nelson Mandela - but other fights require an aggressive personality, and Bertram Wainer was certainly one of those people who would not be intimidated.'

Detective Inspector Jack Ford is a hugely complex character. Writer Kris Wyld describes him as 'the fallen hero - a truly great hero figure of the time, an elite homicide detective, looked up to by all other detectives, and a man trusted by and with the ear of the powerful. Ford is a tragic figure, in some ways a fallen hero. William McInnes is the perfect actor for this role, as he has the resources to play the balance of both the hero and the fallen man. He is just brilliant in the role.'

William McInnes explains, 'Ford was a brave man and decorated officer with a stream of citations and awards. He was highly respected and in fact, led the investigation into the disappearance of Harold Holt. I think Ford really saw himself as trying to provide a service to women. He didn't like the backyarders, and he didn't like investigating the deaths of women who had been to them. I think he saw the abortion doctors' racket as a way of maintaining a safety net and of course as a way of earning extra coin. While he wasn't a bad man, he was a man with vices. And I think he made a good scapegoat.'

Peggy Berman is the woman at the centre of the story who ultimately has to make a choice. Writer Kris Wyld explains, 'So many of the issues are about choice - women's choices - and Peggy herself personified choice. On one hand she has Wainer, who she admired so much and who was trying to do what was 'right' and who she had a good, fun, teasing time with. On the other hand she had Ford, the heroic cop figure that she had been in love with.'

Peggy was an intelligent, strong, determined woman with a love of jazz and blues, who was drawn to interesting people and surrounded herself with intellectuals, artists, reformists and anti-establishment types. But Peggy was also a highly glamorous woman. Producer Ned Lander knew he needed to find an actress with the ability to supercharge the role with all these traits. Ned explains, 'Susie Porter is an actress with the dignity and grace, the strength and fragility to portray this powerful woman, and I was thrilled we were able to cast her.'

Peggy Berman's personal journey over the course of the film is one of the story's lynchpins. Susie Porter comments, 'Peggy Berman worked with the doctors and was a go-between for the doctors and the police. She was fine doing this, but it all went haywire. But once Wainer comes on the scene, Peggy's journey is choosing and changing her alliance in the story, and for her personally she suffers illness and loss of a relationship. By the end she has been through a massive change.'

Jo Richardson is the young woman who meets Wainer through the Abortion Law Reform Association and goes on to join forces with him. She was a student activist and deputy editor of Melbourne University student newspaper Farrago, and a passionate campaigner for social justice. In the film Jo is played by Maeve Dermody.

Kris Wyld explains, 'Jo is still alive, still campaigning and working in the area of women's health. She was a great believer in the cause and wants to bring about change in a way that is very different to Wainer's way. But in this story she also represents the young women at the centre of this issue.'

Ned Lander picks up the story, 'In fact, it took 40 years to change the law. Jo Wainer continued to campaign until the law was finally changed in 2008. She never lost the rage.' In 2010 she was recognised with an Order of Australia.

Maeve Dermody is the daughter of feminist Sue Dermody (who coincidentally was one of Kris Wyld's lecturers at UTS). Interestingly, Kris points out that 'there is a real similarity between Jo and Sue in their political approach to life and in their thoughtful natures.'

Maeve says, 'Jo was a student and an activist, but I read somewhere that it was through this period that she says she became a radical. While she was already involved in the Abortion Law Reform Association, it was after meeting Bert she became more exposed to the truth of the situation, and she became more informed, and in a sense became a warrior. There is something very sturdy and strong and serious and determined in Jo.'

Lionel Pugh was a journalist who had been active in the campaign to end capital punishment when the Bolte government hung Ronald Ryan. His was a newspaper police rounds man writing for the new national newspaper, The Australian.

Mark Leonard Winter who plays Lionel was shocked by the events depicted in the script. Mark says: "Reading the script at first you were just like "did this actually happen"? I couldn't believe all these events were taking place and it sort of reads like an action movie. Pugh is a fascinating character. He was an idealist and really believed in social justice. He became involved in this campaign and may have ended up paying for it with his life. I think being a young adult in the late 60's and early 70's was an amazing period of time for believing that you can change the world, make a difference and actually help people.'

Bert Wainer came to speak at my high school in 1973. I was impressed, as many have been, with his charisma and sense of purpose. His crusade was part of the social changes sweeping through Australian society in the 60's and 70's: the sexual revolution, the position of women and widespread questioning of the moral authority of structures of power, many of which had become highly corrupted.

Visiting Melbourne seventeen years later, I literally happened upon Bert's funeral. His wife, ex-wife and children from both marriages were there. People from all walks of life had turned up to pay tribute to Bert, touched by his life and his work.

This script has long been in development. It's a rich story and a great yarn. It has danger, suspense, complicated characters, contradictions and romance.

It's a story populated with extraordinary characters: Peggy Berman, the working class girl made 'good' who became a go-between for the doctors and the corrupt cops. Jo Wainer, who continues to campaign for women's rights to this day; Jack Ford, the fallen hero of the Homicide squad.

I continue to meet people who have their own stories tied to Bert's: the man who sold him his cars and put the bolts through the exhaust pipes so explosives couldn't be stuck up them, the doctor who cared for him after his fourth heart attack, newspapermen who worked to ensure the public heard the story and, of course, his family who have been so generous in sharing their experiences with me.

This story is timely and as relevant as ever today. The recent case in Queensland of a young couple who were arrested and tried after seeking an abortion exemplifies the continuing struggles between legal frameworks, moral assumptions and individual circumstances. These conflicts draw on tensions between deeply held beliefs, forces of power, rights and liberties and entrenched positions. These questions go to the heart of our democracy and our society. The individual experiences of these forces at play are often difficult and sometimes heartbreaking….

It is my hope that Dangerous Remedy challenges, enlightens, entertains, and stimulates debate.

ABORTION TIMELINE (Pre, During, and Post the Wainer campaign)

1890 The Melbourne Age describes the growing underground practice in abortions.

1901 At Federation, abortion in Victoria is governed by the 1861 British Offences Against the Person Act, under which any person convicted of an unlawful abortion is liable for 15 years jail, whether or not the woman was pregnant. This act was designed to protect women from the dangers of unlawful interference; it was not designed to protect the foetus.

1904 The Royal Commission into declining birth rates finds that the decline is due to the 'selfishness and pleasure-seeking' of women.

1920s Abortion is widespread, despite its illegal status. Abortion services are lucrative and businesses are well known. Wealthy women accessed private gynaecologists, middle-class women increasingly sought the services of physicians, while working-class women utilised a traditional network of midwives.

1928 Bertram Wainer born in Edinburgh. He leaves school at 13, and migrates to Australia at the age of 21.

Police crack down on midwives providing abortions, thus removing the safest option available to lower-income women. Poor women are forced to find alternatives, causing a massive rise in backyard and self-induced abortions.

1930s At this time a third of all the mortality of mothers is caused by abortion.

1934-41 Deaths following abortions reach their peak. The rate of maternal mortality rate is otherwise halved at the same time.

In the U.K. Dr Bourne is found not guilty following his trial for terminating the pregnancy of a fourteen year-old girl raped by five soldiers.

1944 A Royal Commission finds that women are 'deliberately limiting' the size of their families through the use of contraception and abortion.

1960 Bertram Wainer becomes an Australian Army doctor, serves for six years in Australia and New Guinea and reaches the rank of colonel before resigning because of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war. He sets up in private practice in St Kilda, Melbourne.

1960s Immigration is promoted to counter the declining natural population. Conservatives fear that abortion and immigration will threaten 'White Australia'.

Police crack down on medical practitioners performing abortions. An entrenched network of graft and corruption sees police continue to benefit from the illegality of abortion.

1967 Abortion legalised in the UK.

A woman comes to Bertram Wainer for help following a botched backyard abortion. She refuses to go to hospital for fear of police interrogation and arrest. This marks the beginning of his long campaign to legalise abortion in Victoria.

A shift is evident in public acceptance of abortion for socio-economic reasons.

1967 Establishment of the Abortion Law Reform Association at Melbourne University. Jo Richardson (later Wainer) volunteers as inaugural secretary.

1969 A raid on a Melbourne doctor's surgery sees patient files seized by police. Bertram Wainer is outraged by the violation of patient/doctor confidentiality by police.

Dr Bertram Wainer runs an ad in the Melbourne Herald Sun advising women who have been approached by police that they have rights and should seek legal advice. The advertisement suggested that for further advice about their rights women might call him. It gave his name and phone number.

1969 Bertram Wainer claims that police run protection rackets involving backyard abortionists. The Truth in Melbourne publishes his allegations. Affidavits are later handed to the solicitor-general to back up the claims.

1969 R vs. Davidson. Dr Charles Davidson is charged with 'unlawfully using an instrument' to procure the miscarriage of a woman. Justice Menhennitt rules that abortion might be lawful if necessary to protect the physical or mental health of the woman, provided that the danger involved in the abortion did not outweigh the danger that the abortion was designed to prevent. It is the first ruling on the legality of abortion in any part of Australia.

1970 Peggy Berman and others make affidavits about police involvement in a protection racket around illegal abortions. The Victorian state government orders an internal police inquiry. Berman and co refuse to give evidence to the police inquiry and eventually the government appoints William Kaye QC to head a judicial abortion inquiry.

The Kaye Inquiry finds 13 officers are implicated in the racket. Three police officers are jailed for receiving bribes and offering protection. Doctors' role in corrupt practices is not subject to scrutiny. Some commentators say that the focus on corruption is a cynical way of avoiding law reform.

1972 Wainer sets up the Fertility Control Clinic, which offers public access to abortion with no upfront fees.

2008 Premier John Brumby announces that 'our existing laws are out of step with community sentiment' and proposes that legislation be passed to decriminalise abortion.

A new law passes through state parliament in September 2008 giving women the right to make the decision.

Gregory, Robyn, 2004, 'Corrupt Cops, Crooked Docs, Prevaricating Pollies and 'Mad Radicals': A History of Abortion Law Reform in Victoria, 1959 – 1974', PhD thesis, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Gregory, Robyn, 'Hardly Her Choice: A History of Abortion'

Law Reform in Victoria, Women Against Violence: An Australian Feminist Journal, No. 19, 2007: 62-71, accessed HERE

It Isn't Nice? 972 Alpha Press by Dr Bertram Wainer 1972

Why Isn't She Dead
, Peggy Berman and Kevin Childs 1972
 Melbourne ~ Saturday November 3, 2012

The operation that made me a criminal

By Anne Summer
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.

Dr Bertram Wainer in 1971 reading the abortion inquiry report. Wainer successfully lobbied for legal access to abortion for women in Victoria.

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.