The first time was just a phone call. The voice was male, friendly, inviting.
"Mr O'Brien? Mr Allan O'Brien?" it asked.
"Yes," I said, admitting my identity. I couldn't help but speak warmly myself. After all, I had no reason not to. Not then.
"Oh good sir. I wonder if I could speak to your wife, Ms Alison Fontinel."
"Mrs Alison O'Brien," I corrected, a trifle less warmly.
"Yes, that's right sir." Polite, I decided. The assumption that my wife would go under her maiden name suggested a government official, probably a federal one. He didn't seem to be offended that my wife and I had decided that she would adopt my name. A sizeable minority of married women still used their husbands' surnames.
"I'm afraid she's not here at the moment. Can I help you?"
"I'm sorry, Mr O'Brien. It is her I must speak with. Perhaps she could call me back?"
"Certainly, let me just get something to write down your details ... hold on, nearly got it ... there. You are?"
"My name is Richard White and I'm from the Federal Bureau of Population Resources in Canberra. My telephone number is ..."
"Hold on," I interrupted. My feeling of warmth towards this polite stranger evaporated. Phhht! "The Federal Bureau of Population Resources." I enunciated slowly, the title tasting poorly in my mouth.
"Yes, that's right. And my telephone number is ..." He was evidently under the impression that I was still interested in recording his contact information.
"Hold on," I said again, "The Bureau ... is this about our baby?" I couldn't help it: the hostility was now clear in my voice.
The training they gave them must be effective. Public servants were unfailingly civil, particularly the senior ones. His voice remained friendly, his manner polite, his intention as firm as steel.
"No Mr O'Brien. I'm not at liberty to discuss this matter with you. The regulations clearly provide that these matters may only be discussed with the mother." A slip.
"So it is about our baby. Well, Mr White, I'm the father. It seems to me I'm equally entitled to participate in this discussion."
"So you are sir ... with the consent of your wife. So you see, I really must speak to her first."
"Mrs O'Brien and I will consider together whether we wish to speak to the Federal Bureau of Population Resources."
"Thank you Mr O'Brien. My telephone number is ..."
"We won't need that Mr White. I'm sure if we decide to call you back, we can find you through your Bureau. Goodbye."
After I had placed the phone gently back into its receiver, I wondered whether I should have tried to find out more. But no, Mr White had made it quite clear that he wasn't going to talk to me.
Alison and I did consider whether we wished to speak to the Bureau. We did not.
"But can they do anything Allan?"
"No," I told her firmly. "This isn't China."
Mr White did not call back, but three weeks later we received an E-Mail from him. Rather, Alison did. She rang me at work, her voice trembling. It was mid-afternoon. I glanced at the towering pile of papers on my desk and decided to come straight home. Alison needed me there. I asked her to forward the letter so I could to read it on the way. The train wasn't as crowded as usual because I was travelling early, so I could sit and concentrate on the print-out.
It wasn't quite as bad as she had made out, I thought. But then, she always had been better at reading between the lines than me.
The letter gave plenty of background, pointing out that Australia had five years previously signed a number of international treaties in which our nation had undertaken to stabilise its human population in the short term. In the medium term it was to reduce it. People were to be shed until the current population of 22 million reverted to the 1950s level of twelve.
I knew this, of course. Like many, I thought Australia had been harshly treated, as had most other western countries. The Human Resources treaty had provisions which interacted with the Green House, Energy Usage, Clean Earth and Economic Equity treaties. Since we Australians used more energy, produced more greenhouse gases and were richer -- per capita -- than, say, India, our population targets were proportionately lower.
All this had been a one-day wonder in the press, especially when the Parliament of the Federal Republic had overridden the anti-abortion laws of a couple of the more reactionary States. Eventually the High Court affirmed the Republic's laws, dutifully following the many precedents established since the Franklin Dam case a generation previously.
In the end, opposition was muted. Almost everyone agreed with the need to reduce human population and it wasn't as though family planning restrictions were being made compulsory.
Indeed Mr White, writing most elegantly, assured us of this. But he did want us to be aware of certain facts that would assist us in making our decision.
Firstly, the Bureau had been advised by our obstetrician (as required by law) that Alison was expecting a child some sixteen weeks hence. Mr White was regretful that the tardiness of the doctor and some unfortunate hold-ups in the administrative procedures of the Bureau had delayed his communication to this late stage. He was rather less regretful that the delay was contributed to by what he presumed to be my refusal to pass on his message to my wife (it being inconceivable, was the unstated premise, that she might have declined to return his call if I had).
Secondly, the Bureau had determined from its records that Ms Fontinel was already the mother of three live children. Clearly this already was in excess of the two children (or less) considered optimal by the Bureau. A fourth child was to be vigorously discouraged.
Thirdly, the Bureau had made available a considerable amount of special purpose funding to provide subsidised, to a far greater extent than general medical services, abortions to all women who sought them. He was pleased to inform Alison that in cases such as hers, the Bureau's guidelines provided for waiving the modest fee that would normally be charged. A list of accredited family planning clinics in her city was enclosed for her convenience. Any one of these clinics would also be pleased to provide further information on family planning.
In closing, Mr White urged Ms Fontinel to avail herself of this opportunity, reminding her that a fourth child could do nothing but add unnecessary burden to her life and would constitute a further encroachment of the blight of humanity upon this suffering planet.
Actually, Mr White did not use the word "blight". But he might as well have.
Mr White signed himself a "Family Welfare Officer".
Alison's distress had evolved into anger by the time I was home. No, not anger -- fury.
"Abortion!" she hissed. "It's murder!"
Alison was a Christian, committed to her faith. And in a day when most of the mainstream churches had completed their transmutation into personal empowerment groups, she remained with the Catholic Church, still untainted by the secularisation that had otherwise dissolved "Christianity".
I also opposed abortion but wasn't torn apart by it like Alison. Unless someone wanted to abort one of our children.
... the High Court this morning found that Mr Lambert, who is profoundly hearing impaired, had been unlawfully discriminated against when the company refused to promote him to the position of Public Relations Director. The company argued that this differing ability would make it impossible for him to properly undertake his duties. In this landmark ruling, the Court extended the discrimination test to require companies to take all necessary steps to allow the differently-abled to perform any possible duties. A number of options had not even been explored in Mr Lambert's case. The company could have employed an assistant skilled in signing to act as Mr Lambert's interpreter, a language in which evidence showed Mr Lambert to be exceptionally eloquent.Three weeks had passed since the E-Mail from Mr White. I wondered if the High Court and the Equal Opportunities Commissioner would consider how Alison and I felt about the increasing pressure on us. I doubted it.
The Federal Commissioner for Equal Opportunities expressed satisfaction with the High Court's decision. "The decision affirming our finding is as we anticipated," she told a press conference, "but it is gratifying that the Court has exposed the self-serving nature of the company's policy for what it is. Some people continue to insist that employers should have a so-called right to 'hire and fire'. I plead with those people to empathise with people like Mr Lambert, who have already suffered so much. Just try to understand how he felt when -- once again -- he was rejected because of a physical condition over which he has no control."
From The Electronic Australian, 16:14 edition, 21 March 2019
"Allan, I don't like what's happening." At that, Alison burst into tears. I held her to me and tried to sooth her. I allowed a few minutes to pass.
"What's wrong Alison?"
"Brigette asked why we are bad people ..."
"What!" Good one, Allan, I told myself. Outrage isn't what's needed right now. Empathy and understanding, empathy and understanding. "I'm sorry. What's happened?"
"They were asking her at school."
"Dad, you and Mum shouldn't have had Andrew. And you shouldn't have the new baby." She was full of the certainty of a seven year old who has been taught such from on high. And, like any seven year old, lacked any compassion beyond the immediate reaching out at times of hurt. She did not even realise that her Mum and Dad were hurt by such remarks.
Her answer wasn't readily to hand. I could see her straining, thinking hard. "'Cause there are too many people already?" That was how she ended. As a question.
"Has someone told you that?" The fatherly approach, interested but not excited or concerned.
"Yes, Ms Dolken." Ms Dolken, her teacher!
It was probably all generalities. "Listen Sweetie. A lot of people think that there are too many people in the world. Your Mum and I don't. What's the world for if it isn't for people to live in?"
"Oh, I didn't think of that." So easily swayed, so open to being convinced, so trusting. But not just by her parents.
"I'm sure Ms Dolken didn't mean that Andrew and our new baby -- your new brother or sister -- shouldn't be here. Did she just say to the class that there are too many people in the world?"
"Yes Dad, she did. And she told the class that my brother shouldn't be here and we shouldn't have another baby and I should stop you!" The words tumbled out, as did the tears.
I held my daughter close to me, wanting to comfort her and having no words in the blind fury of the moment. After a while I was able to say, "Baby, believe me! You haven't done anything wrong. You are a wonderful girl."
A little later I said, "And Mum and I haven't done anything wrong either!"
Ms Dolken consented to see Alison and me the following afternoon. Overnight I started to doubt my own daughter. She was only seven, perhaps she had misunderstood.
"Not at all," clarified Ms Dolken. She was young, perhaps 22, and very gifted with the children despite her limited experience. Certainly Brigette loved her. I had always thought Ms Dolken to be rather pretty. Now her face was cold and harsh.
"Mr and Mrs O'Brien, I told the class precisely what your daughter has related to you. I'm surprised that I should have to say such a thing. I suppose in one sense I should be thankful to you for having provided such an apt example of irresponsibility. Unfortunately I can't overcome the anger I feel for what you are doing to Brigette, and to the rest of us. I appeal to you to get rid of the foetus!"
She was able to complete this harangue because I was rendered speechless and Alison sat frozen, her hands clasped instinctively over her fulsome womb. In the frigid silence that followed, I studied my wife's fertile abdomen. Why couldn't I think of its contents as a mere "foetus"? Why had I thought of it -- him or her -- as our baby, as our child, from the moment we had discovered that he/she was there?
Why didn't other people see that?
I almost argued with Ms Dolken. A sudden realisation of the futility of it saved me from trying. There was no common foundation upon which agreement could be built. She thought of our child as a poisonous invader, soon to participate in the infestation of the world.
Thrusting whatever authority I could muster into my voice, I announced, "Ms Dolken, you will not use my daughter as an object lesson for the indoctrination of your class with your moral views. I shall be lodging a complaint with the School Principal, the Education Department and your professional body. Good day!"
Ms Dolken did not appear concerned.
Alison had been steadily suffering under the weight of subtle condemnation that was coming from so many people around us. Several of our "friends" had made it plain that they felt our baby should be aborted.
It was odd. We had been so pleased with the prospect of our fourth child -- never imagining that Federal policy would be brought to bear so personally -- we had acclaimed the pregnancy to all our friends and acquaintances as soon as we knew. Never had any of them uttered a word of opposition.
Alison found it much harder than me to remain equable in the face of a hundred mild attacks. Her immense love was focused on our baby, without detracting from her ample portions of love for Brigette, Miriam and Andrew ... and me. An attack on our baby was an attack on her.
I did my best to comfort her, encourage her, build her up. But my best efforts were of only slight effect against this hooded onslaught.
I felt as though I were patronising my wife, but couldn't bring myself to add to her misery by conveying the unequivocal support afforded to Ms Dolken's actions by her supervisor, her employer and the body responsible for her professional ethics.
"Come home please Allan, make them go away!" A week had passed and Alison was sounding almost hysterical on the telephone.
"Slow down, what's going on?" My voice was urgent in reflection of her state.
"They've been here since just after you left. It's like they were waiting till you went before they started."
"All these people, demonstrating outside."
"Demonstrating! Against what?"
A sob escaped before her words. "Our baby ... me!"
"I'll be right home. Have you called the police?"
"The police? Allan, I couldn't. Some of them are our friends." Our friends!
"Don't worry, I'll call them. I'll be there in half an hour." Sure, the budget was tight, but I couldn't stand to spend the hour on the train.
I was already standing on the street, looking for a taxi to hail when I finally got through to the police station. Yes, they would send someone around, but they hadn't heard a report of any disturbances. An empty taxi, at last. The driver looked happy when I told him how far I wanted to go. At my urging he drove even faster than was a taxi driver's wont.
The signs were professionally printed -- no crude hand-lettering here. This sign of decorum was countervailed by the fury of their roars. My sense of hearing was pounded by their shouts in the narrow hallway outside our unit. There were no police. I stepped into the crowd as some of them recognised me. I was jostled all the way to the door -- no hands or feet, just a barrage of bodies pushing me this way and that, making my path seem drunken.
Our door had been spray-painted with "Save the planet" in dark green. I had at least had the foresight to have my keys ready. The key slid in smoothly and turned and the door swung open. The press of bodies impelled me inside. I swung quickly and slammed the door closed. Or tried to. A foot was wedged in the door jam and a face, unknown to me, that of a young woman, was trust up against the crack. Hatred was painted on like a whore's make-up. I had never before seen someone I thought truly ugly. Now my naivete was forever purged.
Despite the terror that was threatening to overcome me, I found myself wondering, almost idly, whether a whole person lived behind that face: a person who perhaps smiled on occasion, made love, read a book; a person who was once a child herself.
My body was working at a different level. As soon as I spotted the foot obstructing the door, I swung mine. My shoes were solid and the female foot was propelled backward as the toe of my shoe hit it. An the same instant I jammed the door shut with all the weight of my body. I felt through the flimsy construction the hating face compress as the door struck it.
I felt no regret.
Alison was curled up on the lounge, staring at the door with horror. "Archie Kennerly's there. So's Mary-Ann."
"And Bill Johnson," I responded, "and some others."
"That woman," continued Alison, her voice drab, "the one at the door. You don't know her do you?"
I had been standing in front of the lounge, hands hanging down uselessly as I tried to work out how to help my wife, how to comfort her. The way she was sitting, I could not get my arms around her by sitting myself. I knelt on the floor. Our faces were at the same level. "No."
"She's Christina Mannheim. We go to the same playgroup for our children. She has two little boys. We are very close friends."
At that, her face folded and the tears began to flow. Within seconds she collapsed into unrestrained weeping. I leant forward and, wrapping my arms around her, pulled my wife to me. Through the door I could hear a chant beginning:
Two babies good, three or four, badOver and over. Someone started thumping the door in time with the words. The idea caught on and palms, fists, feet started banging the wall. They were not doing so gently. There must have been thirty people out there in that tight space. We knew about ten of them, and those ten gave me no comfort that there would be restraint.
Two babies good, three or four, bad
Save the planet, purge the foetus"The police should be here by now, I'll call them." Again I kept my voice calm, for Andrew's benefit, and for mine.
Save the planet, purge the foetus
It was another hour and a half before the police arrived, a period in which I had made two increasingly demanding calls to the station, a period in which my faint comfort that the mob would eventually disperse itself dispersed. Didn't they have anything else to do?
The crowd quieted. In the bedroom I could hear nothing. I went out to the front door and could hear a muffled conversation. I waited. After a while our door-bell rang. It was very loud and I found myself foolishly being thankful to the mob that they hadn't used it as well.
I opened the door a crack and saw two blue uniforms. Letting them in I felt an immense relief.
"We can't make them go away -- they aren't doing anything unlawful just by being there." So much for salvation by the police.
"But the noise, the banging ..."
"They've promised they won't do that any more."
"Our job is to keep the peace," the constable explained, wearily, as though he had delivered the explanation many times. "So long as the disturbance ceases, we can't make any arrests. We have no power to make anyone move on in a public place. We can only do something if there is an offence."
"Well, what about the paint on the door? Isn't that malicious damage?"
"They all claim it was there before they arrived." His expression managed to convey disbelief but recognition of the futility of trying to do anything about it.
"I wouldn't worry sir, they'll probably go away after a while. In the meantime we have other jobs to go to."
"What if they start up again?"
"Call the station again and we'll come back. But they won't."
"I wish I was so sure."
"You see, I've met their type before. They hate us of course, but they don't want to get arrested unless the media's present. There's no point otherwise. This isn't a demonstration, their purpose isn't to swing public opinion. They've done that long ago on this point."
"What is their purpose then constable?"
"To rattle you and your wife into doing what they want -- to abort the child."
The mob didn't start up the noise again. But they didn't go away either. I went out before three to pick up the girls from school -- Alison couldn't contemplate the thought of seeing the demonstrators face to face. With the quiet I had been able to draw her out a little. She even managed to smile once or twice. I left her playing with Andrew.
As I walked down the crowded hallway there was no shouting. One of them, a man, walked with me. I noticed Christina Mannheim standing back, her face relatively calm although hatred still seemed to glow in her eyes. There was a faint smudge of blood on her upper lip, which was swollen.
"Why are you doing it man?" my companion asked as I strode towards the elevator. It was a question I could very well have asked, but I wasn't in the slightest interested.
"Having this baby?"
I almost started to justify myself. My natural way of dealing with differences is to try to understand the other point of view, judge it, consider whether it might in fact be preferable to my own view point and, if not, seek to persuade. This man's voice was reasonable, his tone respectful, his demeanour such as to suggest he truly wanted to understand. The urge to persuade was strong.
"Piss off," I told him.
The next morning I rang in to work, giving my apologies. The mob had thinned out overnight but it seemed that at least a cadre remained throughout. Certainly someone rang the door bell long and loud at irregular intervals until 2 am when it finally occurred to me to disconnect the bell. Thereafter the intrusion was performed by a noisy drum roll on the door and walls. Each time I was woken, increasing irritated until at last I could sleep no more. I thought of confronting them but was deterred by the thought of possible violence: them towards me or, worse, me towards them.
What worried me most was Alison. She slept undisturbed throughout the night, slept in one position, her mouth open, as though in a coma rather than slumber. She had escaped.
I took the girls to school. Tempers had apparently frayed somewhat overnight. There was no noisy resumption of the demonstration, but most of the mob followed me down the hall, quietly uttering gruesome obscenities, seemingly indifferent to the presence of two little girls. I stopped for a moment and swung towards them. I could feel my face form into the lines of horror that I felt. "Please," I implored. But all I saw before me was an array of expressions devoid of repentance or human connection. Some faces showed hatred. Worse were others bearing half-smiles of cynical knowledge: a recognition that they were starting to get through to me.
I swung back and holding both my girls by their hands, walked deliberately to the elevator.
On the way to school I tried to explain to the girls what was going on.
I don't think I was very successful.
By lunch time our home was taking on the feel of a fortress under siege. Alison had closed down completely. She played with Andrew quietly and refused to discuss how she was feeling -- or how I was. I decided that the siege had to be broken.
Alison's parents had a large house in the country and had often urged us to stay with them. When I called them, carefully not going into the details of our trials, they were happy to renew the invitation. I also called the police and asked if the constable who had visited the previous day could stand by as we left. I packed. It seemed that I was unable to interest Alison in the move, although I sensed a slight diminishing of her tension.
The same two policemen came to our door at five minutes to three. I wanted to avoid bringing the girls back through the mob, so I planned on picking them up from school on the way to our "holiday". I would have risked the crowd by myself, or with Andrew. But I feared Alison to be too fragile, physically and emotionally, to face them. She had not seen them, other than for the briefest glimpse when they had first arrived the previous day.
I forlornly asked the constable if there was any way that the crowd could be cleared and, of course, they couldn't. But he did offer us safe passage. I made two trips with the luggage and, with the guardians of the peace present, our picketers remained silent. Then it was time for my family to join me on my last trip to the car.
The moment the crowd sighted my wife, it roared. It was no longer a collection of individuals but a composite organism of ill-will. The police led the way, clearing a path with Alison immediately behind, followed by me carrying Andrew. The thirty intruders of the previous day seemed to have swelled -- as though they knew a climax was nearing -- to perhaps double that number.
The corridor was long, the chanting resumed. There was only one message: Kill the foetus. Our passage was slow as our vanguard pushed through solid mass of people. The chant kept time with our retarded footsteps. Even from behind, I could see Alison wincing with each Kill. I stretched out my free arm and placed it on her shoulder.
Instead of keeping close to a wall, our escort led us down the centre of the hall through a corridor of bodies. We were being buffeted by their chests and shoulders, the pushing become rougher. Two people formed a wedge between Alison and the police, another three between her and me. The police continued on their path, unknowing that Alison had been left behind. I called out to them but the noise from the crowd was too loud. I screamed for their attention. They walked on.
I was handicapped, holding Andrew. I did not dare to put him down, he would have been trampled. I threw my body, arm outstretched, into a crack in the wall surrounding Alison. It parted slightly and I was there with her.
I allowed several seconds to pass, uncomprehending of the sight before me. Even the genuine fear I had felt the previous day, the maiden recognition of actual physical danger, the knowledge that people could be cruel not only to people unknown to me, but to me and to my loved ones -- even these had not prepared me for the sight I beheld.
A man was there, not a big man. He was bespectacled, balding. He seemed inoffensive. But -- there -- he struck my wife. There -- again. Alison's face showed pain. The assault was upon the bulge of her womb.
Then I at last comprehended. Then my shocked brain finally accepted the reality of what my senses were revealing. Then I moved.
I deposited Andrew between the shields of my legs and pounded the man in the face. His glasses cracked and he went down. I flailed about, not caring whether I struck man or woman. The crowd fell away before us. I believe that as I had been frozen by the baggage of a soft and safe past, they were stunned by their first experience of fury. Not the contrived anger of someone committed to a cause, but the primal rage of a man whose loved one has been abused.
I hustled my family away, the mob's now erratic chanting left behind, to the elevator. A woman tried to join us in the lift carriage but I repelled her and pushed buttons to get us away. The two policemen, with us in the lift, exchanged glances. I bit down on my tongue.
No-one was waiting for us at the bottom. Alison was groaning. The larger constable helped me guide her to the car. I recognised the characteristic posture of her labour contractions; I didn't need to ask. She groaned again.
Alison was twenty eight weeks pregnant. The baby's time was twelve weeks away.
Torn, full of anguish, I left Alison at the hospital. The neighbours upon whom we would normally have called for assistance had been too well represented outside our home to be trusted. Neither Alison nor I possessed other family within reach. Our girls could not be left at the school.
Alison's labour was over when I returned. I rushed in to see her, found her in bed gazing into the eyes of our second son. Nicholas we had decided to call our boy baby, Elizabeth a girl.
Nicholas was blue, his tiny puffs of breath irregular. He was dying.
I raced to see the doctor. She could do nothing. The hospital was public and its policy did not allow her to offer treatment to third or fourth children that had not attained the age of forty-eight weeks from conception.
"You could save our baby?" I demanded.
"Well, a humidicrib would help, but I can't ... I'm not allowed," she informed me. Her face hardened. "I shouldn't want to even if it were permitted."
We had not intended our child to be born in this public hospital, but in a Sisters of Charity facility an hour distant. I had brought Alison to this place only because the emergency warranted it.
When I telephoned, the Sisters of Charity consented to send an ambulance immediately. They promised it would bear a humidicrib and a neo-natal specialist. I returned to sit with my wife and my four children.
When the Ambulance arrived, Nicholas had been dead for twenty minutes.
The police offered to charge the balding, bespectacled man with an assault upon Alison. There was no more serious offence. When the crime of abortion had been removed from the statutes and expunged from the Common Law, no offence had remained to deal with those who induced the death of an unborn child.
My wife's faith precluded contraception. Two months after the expiration of Nicholas' brief life I decided to obtain a vasectomy. I chose to put first those who were now in my family, above those who could now never come.
© 1995 - Stephen Dawson