LOST IN DEATH - an article by Peter Barnes

A comparison of Melinda Tankard Reist, Giving Sorrow Words, (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2000) with Jo Wainer (ed), Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2006).

In 1972 Dr Bertram Wainer and his wife Jo opened the euphemistically named Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. Wainer has achieved almost canonical status in abortion circles, but he died in 1987. His widow, Jo, has recorded a collection of experiences from women who underwent illegal abortions. The aim of the work, Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, is summed up in words of a 92 year-old mother of Carolyn Jamieson, who died in 1968 - the last woman to die of illegal abortion in Australia. Carolyn’s mother writes: ‘I’ve accepted her life like a soldier who goes to war and dies.’ Her last words - the last words in this book - are ‘I know my daughter’s death has not been in vain, now that abortion has been legalized.’ This is the kind of cliché-ridden and self-dramatising conclusion that one might have anticipated after reading Jo Wainer’s introduction.

However, Jo Wainer’s work is a book to read carefully. In many ways it seems to be designed to counter Melinda Tankard Reist’s Giving Sorrow Words. Some 250 women wrote to Ms Reist to tell her of their experiences of abortion, and she used 18 of these in some detail in her very moving book, the title of which is taken from Macbeth, IV,3. One of Ms Reist’s respondents was 13 when she had her abortion, one had undergone 12 abortions, while yet another wrote of an abortion 45 years ago. Yet for all their differences in age, social status, intelligence, and religious conviction, there is a common thread running through every story - each one tells of grief, heartbreak, guilt and pain.

Giving Sorrow Words is a catalogue of human misery. In so many cases, abortion was meant to save relationships but instead it destroyed them. One woman wrote in despair: 'I have paid the ultimate price ... I hate my husband ... I will never be forgiven for what I did.' Another wrote: 'I contemplated killing my husband and the doctors, but most of all I wanted my baby.' She was not a Christian, but she found it easier to recover from the death of her 20 year old son in a car accident than from her abortion. Yet another woman took to lesbian relationships as she could not bear to think of sex with a man. One woman who remained heterosexual still cried after having sex, so painful was the reminder that a previous act of procreation had led to what she called 'the worst experience of my life'. More chilling is the bitter statement of one woman who said that she laughed when she heard that the daughter of her abortionist had been murdered.

Women who have abortions often take to drink, indulge in promiscuous behaviour, and have thoughts of suicide. One spoke of her 'relentless pain', and wanted to throw herself in front of a train. Nightmares are common, as well as fantasising about the baby. One woman wrote: 'Sometimes I open my arms and embrace the air'. Six years after her abortion, she was writing: 'In my mind, I have a son I cannot touch and cannot feed and who follows me about like a ghost.'

In order to cope with misery, remedies varied, - all of them understandable, but some of them somewhat strange. To atone - or at least compensate - for the aborted baby, many women want to fall pregnant again. One woman adopted a baby's gravesite, and visited it regularly, including on her birthday when the baby was due to be born. She observed her birthday as ‘a day of grieving’. Many name the aborted child. One held a ceremony on the day on which her baby was to have been born, and said to her dead child: 'I feel you must hate me, with a fiery anger, but can you let it lie in peace, because I am so sorry.'

One woman describes the shame as 'all-consuming', yet she adds that she is not a religious person. Another says: 'The taking of a defenceless life is the worst sin I can think of, and I am guilty of it.' Yet another cries out: 'I need penance, healing - to respect, to grieve.' She even has dreams of hell. Many expressed a hope, however vague, that in death, they would be reunited with their aborted babies. A feminist thought she would have no troubles, but found: 'My head said one thing; my heart said another.' She went on: 'Feminist trailblazer by day, emotional cripple by night, I often cried myself to sleep curled up in the corner of my lounge room.' Even after she became a Christian, she still faced eight lonely and sorrowful years.

One of the most perceptive comments comes from Catherine: 'Abortion is such a secret loss and there is nothing tangible to grieve for. There are no mementoes (sic), photos, memories to share, no grave to visit, nothing recognisable to anyone else. It all takes place in your imagination.' It is a grief which one is not supposed to feel - indeed, one is meant to experience some kind of relief. It is also the grief which is perhaps the loneliest grief of all. In the words of one woman: ‘I have terminated myself.'

The propaganda of the so-called pro-choice lobby has proved to be dreadfully misleading and empty. Consent may be given, but it is hardly informed. Hence abortion counselling is dismissed by one woman as 'bulldozing'. There is only the appearance of choice, not the reality. One doctor told Asphyxia: ‘It’s not a baby! It’s a piece of foetus!' Yet one woman spent the night before her abortion apologising to her baby. Another writes: 'afterwards I knew with absolute clarity that I had killed a child. My child.' Most poignant is one woman’s confession: ‘I was a murderer.' Husbands and partners often issued ultimatums, demanding a choice between the baby or the father. At a vulnerable time of their lives, women can be railroaded into a decision which they may bitterly regret. The pro-abortion feminists have been shown to have acted against the best interests of women. As Germaine Greer, of all people, came to realise: 'Abortion is the last in a long line of non-choices.'

Jo Wainer’s book, on the surface, is meant to tell the other side of the story - of how terrible were the days when abortion was illegal. Yet somehow that is not quite the message that emerges. Mrs Wainer has trouble being accurate. She claims that there were 90,000 illegal abortions each year in Australia - roughly equivalent to the number of legal abortions now. This is, to use the much-cited expression of Jeremy Bentham with regard to natural rights, ‘nonsense upon stilts’. The true figure would almost certainly have been fewer than 10,000. If Mrs Wainer plays up the number of illegal abortions, she plays down the significance of each abortion, asserting, without obvious relevance, that ‘Abortion is a small word of only three syllables.’ She seeks to portray herself as a guardian of civilization: ‘The police and the rule of law are what stands between civilized society and the brutality of might is right, anarchy or totalitarianism. A corrupt police threatens the basis of a just society.’ Yet she also claims that, morals aside, ‘They had no option.’ Not exactly a strict historian, Mrs Wainer paints a pre-legal abortion age as one where the churches condemned sex as sinful, and refused to countenance any kind of female insubordination.

Yet the stories that Mrs Wainer collected read depressingly like those in Ms Reist’s collection. Admittedly, one woman asserts that abortion was not a big deal, but another reveals just how dehumanizing is the abortion mentality. This woman had an illegal abortion in 1953, and writes: ‘I certainly had no guilty feelings as I do not and never have liked or wanted a child, and never had any. I regard having the abortion, all things considered, to be the best thing I have ever done.’ It is not the sort of argument that ought to inspire much confidence - that abortion is morally good because a woman hates children.

There is more in the same vein. Another woman is quite emphatic: ‘I hate children. I especially hate babies.’ When she aborted her child at twenty weeks, her rage knew no bounds: ‘I should have made sure it was dead. I should have torn it apart with my own bare hands, wreaking my vengeance upon it for what it did to me.’ Another was greatly offended that she required a letter from a psychiatrist that said that she was an unfit mother - incidentally, an indication that abortion was not always illegal at this time. She considers that the need for such a letter was ‘an absolute affront’, but then defends abortion on the grounds that ‘Animals leave their babies if they’re weak, debilitated, or some way malformed. It’s the survival of the fittest thing.’ One woman claims to have had 32 abortions.

Not only is abortion associated with a dehumanizing rejection of the value of human life, but it so often signals the end of a relationship. One woman rages against her boyfriend’s total lack of care, that ‘he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as me when I came back from the doctor’s room.’ She notes: ‘The abortion marked the end of our relationship.’ Another woman cries: ‘I never felt so lonely’, while another married, then divorced her boyfriend after the abortion, and concluded that there were problems of unresolved guilt, bitterness and blame, and ‘The experience degraded us both.’

Thirty years after one abortion, the woman still resented her mother for forcing the abortion on her, while another complained that her husband let her down by abdicating. Often, one feels that one could be reading Ms Reist’s book. Yet it is Mrs Wainer who records one woman’s lament: ‘I felt putrid. I felt as low as anyone could ever get.’ Another aborted her child at home, and stated ‘That was when I realised it wasn’t a clot. It was a baby.’ Yet another mourned: ‘I would have loved to have had the baby.’ Yet the pretence had to be maintained, and one woman records that, when her unborn child was twenty weeks old, the doctor ‘freaked out’ when she mentioned the word ‘baby’.

The evidence that Mrs Wainer has gathered does not lead to the conclusion that she desires. Instead, it portrays the abortion business as something brutal, dehumanizing, money-making, fantasy-ridden, and overwhelmingly destructive. One is reminded of the chilling comment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ The most apt part of Jo Wainer’s work is not the introduction or conclusion but the depressing title.


* A comparison of Melinda Tankard Reist, Giving Sorrow Words, (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2000) with Jo Wainer (ed), Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2006).