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Peter John Bayliss (1928–1999)

by Sylvia Bannah

This article was published online in 2023

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Peter Bayliss, no date

Peter Bayliss, no date

Supplied by Christopher Bayliss

Peter John Bayliss (1928–1999), medical practitioner and abortion law reformer, was born on 10 February 1928 at Croydon, Sydney, elder child of Stuart Melville Bayliss, chemist, and his English-born wife Mary Lillian, née Hearne. After attending Sydney Boys’ High School, Peter studied at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1951), where he won Blues in rugby and rowing. He commenced a degree in medicine there, transferring to the University of Melbourne in 1953 (MBBS, 1954). On 20 January 1958 he married Yvonne Lola Barnes, a nurse, and over the next decade they had four children: Christopher, David, Simon, and Joanna.

Having been appointed as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, Bayliss undertook a one-year short-service commission in the Medical Branch of the Permanent Air Force from 1955. In 1960 he began working in general practice with a focus on obstetrics, gynaecology, and anaesthetics. He soon turned to surgery, where he adopted the latest techniques for abortion—or, as he preferred to call it, ‘therapeutic termination of pregnancy’ (Bentley 1998, 4)—and outpatient sterilisation. On several occasions he was charged with, and subsequently acquitted of, providing unlawful abortions. After a landmark ruling by Judge Clifford Menhennitt in the case R. v. Davidson (1969) established that abortion was lawful in Victoria under certain conditions, Bayliss joined the prominent abortion law reformer Bertram Wainer to open the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne in 1972. Around this time his marriage ended in divorce.

In 1978 Bayliss teamed with Bruce Errey—who was beginning to offer termination services at his clinic at Greenslopes, Brisbane—to open the Fertility Control Clinic (Queensland). Before this, the counselling and referral group Children by Choice (established 1971) had been directing thousands of women to Sydney or Tweed Heads for abortions that were not openly available in Queensland. With Bayliss initially piloting his own plane weekly from Melbourne, the pair offered contraception, voluntary male and female sterilisation, and abortion to twelve weeks gestation. Confident they could work within State law, he openly promoted the clinic.

Under pressure from the anti-abortion group Right to Life, the conservative Bjelke-Petersen government soon looked for ways to shut the service down. Early in 1979 police visited the clinic but took no action in response to what was revealed to be a fraudulent complaint. Following this an attempt by the government in 1980 to change the law failed when some of its members crossed the floor to defeat the Pregnancy Termination Control Bill, allowing Bayliss and Errey to continue their work. When State cabinet authorised a raid on the clinic, Bayliss rose to national prominence. Taking place on 20 May 1985, ‘Operation Lost Cause’ involved police cordoning the area as a crime scene, confiscating 18,000 patient files, and arresting and holding Bayliss at the police watchhouse. Extensive newspaper and television coverage included images of terrified women running from the clinic and police searching drains for foetal evidence. The raid and publicity surrounding it triggered intense public, professional, and political outrage. In June the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Queensland ruled that the warrants used were invalid and ordered all medical files to be returned. Charges against Bayliss were dropped the following month.

The government persisted until the basis for a test case was established in August that year when Bayliss and the anaesthetist Dawn Cullen were charged with ‘unlawfully using force to a woman with intent to procure her miscarriage’ (R. v. Bayliss and Cullen [1986], 8). They were found not guilty, Judge Frederick McGuire of the District Court interpreting Section 282 of the Criminal Code to mean that performing an abortion was not a criminal offence if not doing so threatened the mother’s physical or mental health. The judgment set a precedent for abortion and brought Queensland into line with most other States; Bayliss called it ‘a victory for the judicial system’ (Courier-Mail 1986, 1).

Never one to avoid conflict, Bayliss challenged or took legal action against the bureaucracy, the medical profession, anti-abortionists, and even pro-choice advocates he believed were hypocritical. He lived by the Latin motto ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’—‘No one touches me with impunity’ (Milliner 1999, 33). In 1988 he launched a series of actions against those involved in the 1985 raid and prosecution, including the arresting officer, the attorney-general, the prosecutor, and the State of Queensland, alleging that their actions had been malicious and politically motivated and that he had been falsely imprisoned. When the case was decided in September 1998, he lost on all counts. Meanwhile, in February that year he had suffered another setback: the Medical Assessment Tribunal suspended him for three months for professional misconduct by omission after a twenty-five-year-old patient suffered permanent brain damage while recovering from a termination he had administered in 1994. He felt keenly the weight of this tragedy and empathised with the woman’s parents, having lost his own son in a 1982 air crash in Papua New Guinea.

Variously labelled brilliant, gruff, pugnacious, courageous, menacing, and charming, the bear-like, pipe-smoking Bayliss was a self-described maverick and humanist (rather than feminist) who fought tenaciously for the right of women to make their own reproductive choices and have access to safe, legal abortion (if only up to twenty weeks’ gestation). For pleasure he owned toy poodles and Burmese cats and collected classic literature, westerns, and vintage cars. He planned to open a new private family planning clinic in Hobart in April 1999.

A chronic insomniac and habitual user of sleeping pills, Bayliss died on 30 March 1999 after falling down the stairs at his home at New Farm; his death was attributed to a heart condition brought on by sleeping pill toxicity. Survived by three of his children, he was cremated at Mount Gravatt Crematorium. Like much of his life, his death was the subject of controversy. In the second of two coronial inquests it emerged that Claudia McEwan, his partner of twenty-four years, had been adding Prozac and Valium to his coffee to subdue his angry outbursts, although she was never charged with an offence. Despite his divisive character, by his actions and decades-long advocacy Bayliss laid the groundwork for abortion law reform in Queensland and the treatment of abortion as a health rather than a criminal matter.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Bayliss v. Cassidy & Ors. [1998] QSC 186 (19 September 1998)
  • Bentley, David. ‘Doctor Defiant.’ Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 8 November 1998, 4
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Jury Clears Two Doctors on Abortion.’ 1 February 1986, 1
  • Holmes, Beryl, and Janet Irwin. ‘Official History of Children by Choice: 1970–1980.’ Manuscript, 1982. Fryer Library, University of Queensland, F2155
  • McGregor, Adrian. ‘Surgeon Led Fight for Abortion Law Reform.’ Australian, 9 April 1999, 14
  • Milliner, Karen. ‘Determined Terminator.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 April 1999, 33
  • R. v. Bayliss and Cullen. [1986] 9 Qld Lawyer Reports (22 January 1986), 8
  • Roberts, Greg. ‘Peter Bayliss.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1999, 29
  • Scott, Leisa. ‘Born to Dissent.’ Australian Magazine, 20–21 May 1995, 10–14

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Citation details

Sylvia Bannah, 'Bayliss, Peter John (1928–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bayliss-peter-john-33184/text41400, published online 2023, accessed online 22 February 2024.

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Peter Bayliss, no date

Peter Bayliss, no date

Supplied by Christopher Bayliss

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bayliss, Peter Stuart
Birth

10 February, 1928
Croydon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

30 March, 1999 (aged 71)
New Farm, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Education
Occupation
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