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Wainer, Bertram Barney (1928–1987)

by Richard Evans

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Bertram Barney Wainer (1928-1987), medical practitioner and advocate of abortion law reform, was born on 30 December 1928 in Edinburgh, youngest of three children of Harold Barney Wainer, medical practitioner, and his wife Bethia Whitelaw, née Borthwick. His father, who died before Bertram was born, was of Jewish South African descent; his mother was Scottish. During the Depression the family became destitute, and moved to Gallowgate, a Glasgow slum. This experience developed in him a deep concern for families suffering poverty and hunger. He won a scholarship to attend Whitehall Senior School, but left aged 13.

After national service with the Royal Corps of Signals, Wainer migrated with his family to Australia in 1949, settling in Melbourne. Deciding to study medicine, he completed his secondary schooling in eighteen months, and entered the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1958). His success was the subject of an advertisement aimed at attracting migrants to Australia. He had married Barbara Joyce Code, a fashion buyer, in 1953 in Melbourne. In 1960 he began service in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Regular Army, as a regimental medical officer, with the rank of captain. Posted to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, in January 1961 he was injured during the suppression of a mutiny by soldiers of the Pacific Islands Regiment. He studied tropical medicine at the University of Sydney (DTM&H, 1962). In 1963 he became commanding officer of No.1 Military Hospital at Yeronga, Queensland, and he was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel in 1964. His marriage suffered from the pressures of service life, and he and Barbara separated in 1962. Resigning from the army in January 1966, he set up a private general practice in Melbourne. His request to rejoin the ARA the following year was unsuccessful, in part because an internal report described his methods as ‘unorthodox’ and questioned ‘his general acceptability in medical circles’.

In 1967 a woman came to Wainer’s St Kilda practice haemorrhaging after an illegal abortion. This case motivated him to campaign for the reform of the laws making abortion a criminal offence. The decision of Justice C. I. Menhennitt in R. v. Davidson (1969) potentially liberalised the law. Wainer decided to test this, and informed the press and the police that he had performed an abortion on a woman who threatened suicide if forced to carry her pregnancy to term. The police did not prosecute. Nor was he charged for two later abortions that he reported to the police. The operations were actually conducted by an experienced abortionist, but he accepted legal responsibility. He personally performed very few abortions in his career.

Wainer learned that police were accepting bribes from abortionists in return for immunity from prosecution. Using bold and sometimes impetuous methods, he gathered evidence of systemic police corruption. He used the press to draw attention to his claims, and by 1969 was a well-known figure. Tall and imposing, with an air of authority reinforced by a Scottish accent, he was an impressive media performer. Despite official indifference, threats by criminals to kill or injure him, and a smear campaign by the police, he succeeded in forcing a public inquiry under the chairmanship of a barrister, William Kaye. The Kaye inquiry, in 1970, was a spectacular exposure of police and medical corruption: four police officers were later charged and three gaoled. But while the report largely vindicated Wainer’s allegations, it also attacked his character and credibility, suggesting, for example, he was motivated by a desire for personal publicity.

The strain of the inquiry and the assaults on his reputation left Wainer bankrupt and in poor health. He moved to Queensland in 1971, establishing a practice at Caloundra. On 10 November 1972, at Nambour, Queensland, he married Joanne (Jo) Richardson, founding secretary of the Abortion Law Reform Association. She worked closely with him in his activism for the rest of his life.

Because doctors in Victoria remained unwilling to perform abortions openly, Wainer returned to Melbourne in 1972 and launched the first overtly operating abortion clinic in Australia. The Fertility Control Clinic, as it became known, was intended to provide safe and affordable abortions and to act as an agent of social change. The clinic became the target of protests, sometimes violent, by anti-abortion groups. The Right to Life Association convenor, Margaret Tighe, was a prominent critic. In 1972 Wainer published an account of the abortion campaign, It Isn’t Nice.

Police corruption continued to be a target of Wainer’s campaigning. By late 1974 he had persuaded the Victorian government of the seriousness of several complaints, and in March 1975 a board of inquiry into police misconduct was established. He was again criticised for his occasionally ill-considered methods of investigation—the inquiry’s chairman, Barry Beach, said he had ‘some of the shortcomings one sometimes encounters when dealing with crusaders’. However, he was once more substantially vindicated. Beach made adverse findings against fifty-five police officers, and recognised the existence of systemic problems in the force. The police union reacted with fury, and threatened strike action. After the premier, (Sir) Rupert Hamer, capitulated to this pressure, the Beach report was effectively shelved. Wainer continued to be a thorn in the side of authority, and to be harassed in return. In 1982 the Australian Federal Police raided the Fertility Control Clinic and his home. The raid was ostensibly related to medical fraud, but no charges were pressed and the police eventually returned more than a thousand seized documents.

By the mid-1980s Wainer considered that he had become ‘almost respectable’. Reform of the criminal law relating to abortion remained elusive, but safe abortions were routinely available. The single most important figure in making safe and affordable abortions accessible to Australian women, he personally ‘loathe[d]’ the need for abortion, but regarded it as ‘the lesser of two evils’. He ranks with Australia’s most courageous and effective social reformers. The years of stress had taken their toll on his health, however; he had endured throat cancer, pancreatitis and several heart attacks. Survived by his wife and their daughter and his daughter and three sons from his first marriage, he died of myocardial infarction on 16 January 1987 at Glenlofty, Victoria, and was buried in Eltham cemetery. At his funeral the Uniting Church minister Dr Francis Macnab described him as ‘a man of justice, determination and compassion’, who was moved by ‘the sight of human suffering’.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Wainer, Pathways to Abortion (1975)
  • J. Wainer (ed), Lost (2006)
  • Parliament of Victoria, Report of the Board of Inquiry into Allegations of Corruption in the Police Force in Connection with Illegal Abortion Practices in the State of Victoria (1971)
  • Parliament of Victoria, Report of the Board of Inquiry into Allegations against Members of the Victoria Police Force (1978)
  • Vic Law Reports, 1969, p 667
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 18 June 1969, p 5
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Sept 1969, p 2, 7 Mar 1970, p 9, 9 May 1986, ‘Good Weekend’, p 22, 19 Jan 1987, p 3, 23 Jan 1987, p 3
  • Sunday Press (Melbourne), 25 Jan 1987, p 22
  • Wainer papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Richard Evans, 'Wainer, Bertram Barney (1928–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wainer-bertram-barney-15900/text27101, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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