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Always a contentious feature of Melbourne life, abortion has been publicly condemned but privately accepted as an unfortunate inevitability. 'Pills for female obstruction' marketed during the 19th century by doctors such as parliamentarian L.L. Smith (1830-1910) were overtaken by more interventionist methods, offered by midwives in the poorer suburbs and by doctors in clinics and private hospitals for the more affluent. The risks of such methods were evident in the high maternal mortality rates, which continued into the 1930s. Abortion was illegal but police collusion and the reluctance of juries to convict meant that successful prosecutions were rare. The decision by police to break this compact in 1967 opened a space for debate in which abortion law reform campaigner Dr Bertram Wainer exposed the corruption which underwrote contemporary practice. The 1969 Menhennit ruling, which held that abortion was not illegal if the physical or mental health of the mother was at risk, and the 1974 addition of abortion to the medical benefits list, facilitated the development of both public and private clinics. This liberalisation has been welcomed by feminists but opposed by the Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups like Right to Life, which continue to argue for a strengthening of the existing law.

Shurlee Swain