2008. 250 p.
I read this book several weeks ago, during the week when finally an exclusion zone was actually enforced outside the East Melbourne Fertility Control Centre. For more than 20 years, pro-life protestors had taken up their positions on the footpath outside the surgery armed with posters and brochures in a final attempt to dissuade women from entering to have abortions. It’s been going on for years, despite the fact that in Victoria abortions no longer fall under the Crimes Act (even though they still do in New South Wales and Queensland). In reading this book, I was taken back to black-and-white images and newspaper articles that threw up for me names like Peggy Berman, Bertram Wainer, and Jack Ford: all familiar, but I couldn’t quite remember how it all fitted together.
As Haigh points out, abortions had always been available in Australia through sharp instruments, potions and purgatives. These solutions were more within the purview of midwives than doctors, who were more often called upon to conduct a D&C after the abortion had been induced at home. Some operators worked with remarkable impunity, but it was also difficult to collect evidence and women often kept silent, partly from fear of charges and also from a sense of solidarity. Doctors became more involved after World War II and through vigorous defence in the courts remained generally untouchable, but they remained interwoven with the remaining midwives and unqualified operators, often receiving commissions for referrals. Increasingly, they became involved with corrupt police as well, in what formed a self-sustained ‘racket’, where everyone had their hand out for their share. Central to all this money changing hands was Peggy Berman, who went to an abortionist for an abortion herself, came out employed as his secretary, had an affair with the Homicide chief Jack Ford who was on the take, and became the main collector and enforcer of bribes and payments. When she felt betrayed by Ford, she began to talk, exposing the whole tacky, crooked racket.
I found myself angered by the casual profiteering that took place over the bodies of these women and girls, and the callousness of the exposure of women, their mothers and boyfriends when the police broke down the doors and the resultant cases ended up in court. Take, for example, the Windsor Court raid on 25 May 1965. Police staked out the back and front entrances, then fanned out through the surgery, upending everything they did not confiscate, rummaging through the patient information cards. Upstairs they found three groggy women recovering from surgery, who they questioned on the spot. The women were spirited away to the Royal Women’s Hospital for internal vaginal examination, with a police photographer hovering beside the trolley taking pictures that, hugely magnified, would be part of the prosecution brief in court. One girl, distressed, asked them to stop but her request was rebutted. When she asked for her mother, she learned that her mother had been taken into custody. (p. 87)
Then there were the court cases themselves.
Very seldom, in fact, do the transcripts read as though the abortionists themselves are on trial. Because the witnesses are largely younger women, and the judges, barristers, solicitors, police and jurors almost exclusively older men, they often read like moral tribunals- and while men in an adversarial systems are apt to check one another, there are moments that smack of male prurience and mental cruelty, even a certain sadism. (p. 140)
Gideon Haigh is a journalist and this is very much a journalists’ book. You can get the flavour of it in Haigh’s essay from the Monthly in 2007. It rattles along, and every interview, every anecdote, gives the names of protagonists and informants just as a newspaper article would do. I found it overwhelming. I’d often find myself thinking “Do I know this person?” and would have to resort to the (thankfully) exhaustive index at the rear, which is dominated by surnames. I wished that at times Haigh would step back from the story, and sketch out the broad contours of the story, rather than the details.
That said, writing recent history is a special challenge, even if that is not necessarily what Haigh would claim to be doing here. It’s well researched, thorough and perceptive. But I must confess to feeling a bit voyeuristic and grubby. I’m aware that the young girls he reports on here are now grandmothers, and I wonder how they and their children feel now, reading about this terribly-public exposure of their distress on the front page of old ‘Truth’ newspapers and now reheated in Haigh’s book. Sometimes I am surprised at the use of pseudonyms in stories that seem quite innocuous, but I found myself wishing that perhaps Haigh had used them here. I know that full names and photographs were splashed all over the more prurient publications, and that these young women entered the public record through the court cases they were dragged through. But I think I’d feel more comfortable as a reader, in this case, if I knew that I wasn’t perpetuating the shame and exposure that, wrongly, was attached to women exercising their right to control their own bodies.