Bertram Wainer inspired a young Tim Flannery to take on the establishment
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Sometimes unlikely heroes appear in our lives and change things forever. For me, one such person was Dr Bertram Wainer. Not that I ever met the man, who died in 1987, but in 1972 he taught me a powerful lesson that changed my life. It was a year of triumph for the abortion campaigner who had risked everything to see abortion legalised in Victoria, along the way instigating a major investigation into corruption in the Victoria Police. His abortion clinic in East Melbourne opened, and he published his memoir It Isn’t Nice.
As Wainer rode his wave, I was in my final year of Catholic schooling at St Bede’s in Mentone. I remember the shock of arriving there as a spindly nine-year-old, hovering on the edge of a sea of bigger boys in blue, here and there interspersed with De La Salle Brothers in their grim black gowns. I must have been what they called back then a “sensitive type”. Bullying and corporal punishment were frequent, and I pissed my pants every day. I was grateful at the time that nobody noticed, but now I wonder why they didn’t.
Having no reference point, I accepted the whole experience as normal. But when I was around 14 I had an epiphany. Sex, and the church’s extraordinary views on the subject, was, as was so often the case, the motive force. I was a diligent reader, and growing scepticism saw me read the Gospels end to end and dip into the Old Testament. I was sore amazed to discover how far Catholicism, as I was experiencing it, had drifted from the teachings of the Gospels. With the righteousness and certainty that only a 14-year-old can muster, I decided that the revered book in its entirety was little more than a collection of late Bronze Age to Iron Age writings purporting to document the history of a small Middle Eastern tribe. Jesus was Jewish, and my church and school were all the result of one huge misunderstanding.
Looking back now, I wonder why I didn’t ask to leave. Perhaps I still half-believed the stories about the way Catholics were treated in the outside world. And my father and mother had recently divorced, so maybe there was already enough dislocation in my life. Whatever the case, in 1972 I found myself in Year 12 at St Bede’s. Then, with just eight weeks before final exams, Dr Bertram Wainer intruded on my life.
To better prepare us for life in the wider world, our principal had organised some debates on important issues, one of which was abortion – a subject hardly avoidable given Wainer’s prominence on television and in the newspapers. One morning, the upper-school boys were ushered into the auditorium to hear a talk by anti-abortion campaigners, and to watch a film that featured late-stage abortions so horrific that my friend Michael had an epileptic fit as he sat beside me.
My best friend at school was Neil McCarthy. He was incensed at the one-sided nature of the abortion “debate”, and felt sure that some of the more liberal teachers would rally to his side if he asked for redress. So he pinned a note on the noticeboard, requesting that the school invite Dr Wainer to present on the issue. I regarded the debates as little more than a Prague Spring, and when Neil explained later that day that he had been expelled for making the suggestion, I was not entirely surprised.
But I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that for years I had silently acquiesced to the system. Now, either I would fail to find the courage to speak out or I would support my friend. With dread in my heart I penned a note supporting Neil’s suggestion, and pinned it to the board. Soon thereafter I received news that I too had been expelled.
It was my mother who saved the day. She marched down to the school and confronted the principal. I have no idea what was said, but I was led to understand – though this may be apocryphal – that my father made a substantial donation to the new sports complex, which tipped the scales of justice in our favour. Whatever transpired, both Neil and I were permitted to sit our final exams and were accepted by La Trobe University.
Bertram Wainer has continued to dog my life. At university I met Michael, who would become a lifelong friend. His father, Max, was one of Wainer’s lawyers, and the doctor stayed with Max and Michael in the family home when his life was in danger. (Wainer survived three attempts on his life by shooting and arson.) But I didn’t learn of the connection until much later, and so missed the chance to meet the man.
Born in Scotland in 1928, Wainer left school at 13 and later migrated to Australia. He put himself through a medical degree at the University of Melbourne. In the late 1960s, he opened a clinic in St Kilda, where he treated a woman suffering from the effects of a backyard abortion. He put everything aside – and risked everything – to do what he knew was right.
The fight he ended up leading was far larger than he first realised it would be. He found himself taking on the AMA, politicians and the police, as well as the backyard abortionists. At my school, some had viewed him as a kind of antichrist. But I think that the historic Jesus would have liked and admired the man. To me, he is the kind of hero I find new dimensions in every year – new reasons to admire and emulate. And I will be eternally grateful that he helped show me that I could speak truth to power.
Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.