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Abortion, Corruption and Cops: The Bertram Wainer Story (2005)


Based on Bertram Wainer’s own book, It Isn’t Nice (1972, Alpha Books), the documentary Abortion, Corruption and Cops: The Bertram Wainer Story recounts the 1960s battle for legal abortions in Australia. In 1967 Dr Wainer is called to treat a young woman suffering from a botched 'backyard abortion’. Abortion at the time is illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Doctors who are prepared to perform abortions illegally pay protection money to the police, so as not to be prosecuted, making the procedure expensive.

Wainer and fellow crusader Peggy Berman are determined to change the law. In the process they uncover a web of corruption involving highly-paid doctors, backyard abortionists, high-ranking police and power-broking politicians. Their fight to make abortions accessible, affordable and safe leads to attempts against Wainer’s life and the first major public inquiry into a state police force.

Curator’s notes

Narrated by Angie Milliken and told through historic footage, interviews and re-creations, Abortion, Corruption and Cops is a powerful document of the process of social change. The film has all the ingredients of a classic Hollywood film, as we see a small-town doctor go up against powerful large institutions such as the government and the police. However this isn’t a Hollywood movie but a documentary based on real events that happened in Victoria in the 1960s and 70s, a time of profound change in Australia.

The power of this film lies in its portrait of Wainer and the women who battled alongside him: his second wife Jo Wainer and Peggy Berman, who herself had worked with an illegal abortionist before going public. These are the courageous whistleblowers who defied the powers of the police and the state government in Victoria at the time. The documentary, through telling their story, reminds us that change comes at a cost: in this case, threats and attempts against Wainer’s life.

Wainer (1928–87) was already dead when the film was made, and writer-director John Moore used Wainer’s book, It Isn’t Nice, to give the film his voice. ’It was partly because there were all these conflicting views of Bert that I decided to let him tell his own story; to make the film from Bert’s point of view’, Moore explains.

The filmmakers effectively use actors to create scenes described by Wainer when there was no existing archive footage to accompany his words. What historic footage that does exist from the time, especially the interviews with Wainer, is very powerful. Sometimes the re-creations appear a touch too literal but nevertheless are seamlessly integrated with the other elements of the film by editors Ken Sallows and Andrew Scott.

Abortion, Corruption and Cops is a powerful story that documents the process of social change against the backdrop of a huge wave of political unrest culminating in the early 1970s with the end of the Vietnam war, the rise of Women’s Liberation and the 1972 election of the Whitlam Labor Government. Australia would never be the same. In Victoria in 2008, legislation to decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks passed the Lower House 49–32 after a conscience vote. It then proceeded to the Upper House where it was passed without amendment (23 votes to 17).

Abortion, Corruption and Cops: The Bertram Wainer Story screened on SBS in 2006.