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A tale of illiberality and double standards

11.12.2014 – Jürg Müller

The author has spared no effort trawling through an 800-page file on the abortion cases of a village doctor at the Bernese state archive. The doctor was her grandfather, and the author is Verena Stefan. She lives in Canada today. In 1975, she wrote the book “Häutungen” (Shedding), which gained cult status among the feminist movement. It would be wrong to now conclude that her latest documentary novel entitled “Die Befragung der Zeit” (The Test of Time) is some kind of heroic epic about a doctor committed to female sexual self-determination. Julius Brunner, the main character, is neither an idealist nor an ideologically motivated criminal. However, he is not a villain seeking to exploit the desperation of women for personal enrichment either. He becomes involved in the affair rather reluctantly during the 1940s because he “simply gave in too easily” when the women “begged and pleaded”.

The book combines documentation and fiction in riveting storylines. It looks at an aspect of Swiss legal history when the courts still dealt with abortion with inquisition-like severity. Abortion only became legal in Switzerland in 2002. Verena Stefan quotes extensively from the case records which illustrate how demeaning the questioning was. Documentary material is woven into a largely fictitious and far from idyllic family story. The relationship between Julius Brunner and his wife Lina especially remains fraught throughout their lives.

Brunner’s bond with his little granddaughter Rosa is stronger. The way in which the four-year-old attempts to deal with the events she cannot understand involving her dearly loved grandfather is especially touching. The situation becomes complicated when the elderly doctor is arrested by the police one day and admitted to a psychiatric unit to assess his soundness of mind. A young waitress has set the judicial machinery rolling. She used the doctor’s services in her desperation but was unable to keep her secret after the procedure.

Verena Stefan has written a multi-layered book where she is more of an empathetic chronicler than an advocate of feminism. This leaves the reader with an even stronger impression of a narrow-minded society which practises double moral standards. In the words of Doctor Brunner: “Abortion remains the most reliable means of contraception, as those in authority well know. After all, they use it often enough for their wives and mistresses.”

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