Lessons from history, Bronwyn Labrum

Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th Century New Zealand
Margaret Sparrow
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864739360

Someone I follow on Twitter reported that a friend of hers had no idea that abortion is yet to be decriminalised in New Zealand. This was tweeted in the context of the debates about the 2014 general election, when issues about abortion were barely raised. Increasingly liberal practice since the late 1970s has made abortion services more widely accessible, and extremely safe. But those who were part of that social media conversation, as well as a much wider audience, deserve to read this second, much needed book from the redoubtable Margaret Sparrow, well-known for her long career in reproductive and general health and publicly recognised for her services to medicine and to the community. Rough on Women, with its striking cover of a woman in colonial dress, cropped closely so that her head and shoulders are out of the frame and the title runs across the lower part of her torso, follows a well-reviewed volume on personal stories of abortion from 1940-1980. In often harrowing detail, this book on the 19th century uses coroners’ reports and newspaper accounts to describe some of the experiences women went through to prevent unwanted children and terminate pregnancies. The almost insurmountable odds many women faced are recounted in individual story after individual story, making for grim reading. But a rich, deeply localised social history emerges of everyday life and the involvement of a whole cast of characters: partners, husbands, neighbours, chemists, doctors and, most importantly, other women.

The introduction begins with the deaths of Jessie (“the details of the case are of no public interest”), Clara (miscarriage – natural or induced?) and Mary (an overdose of pennyroyal?) and the way they were reported in local newspapers. Margaret Sparrow summarises her book as an “intriguing glimpse” into 19th-century abortion, which she hopes will put us in “a better position to see what lessons are relevant as we struggle with the issue of abortion in the 21st century”. This is history with the clear purpose of advocacy, and the final chapter asks what lessons can be learned, how we have progressed on the issues raised through recounting these stories, and where society should go in the future.

The book is a narrative, rather than an analytical chronicle, and it is organised thematically. There are separate chapters on available contraception options, the legal situation, coroners and the courts of justice, doctors, chemists, abortionists, helpers and self-abortion. The text is punctuated with numerous images of politicians, lawyers, contemporary cartoons, advertisements and wonderful photographs of the various pills and potions women resorted to, now held by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the New Zealand Police Museum. Their inventive, euphemistic names tell a story in themselves. As Sparrow acknowledges, because of the shame and secrecy surrounding abortion there are no images of the women themselves, and none of the sources she draws upon are generated by the women themselves. She also reminds the reader that most women having abortions did not die, that their lives would have been enhanced by the solution of abortion, and that most experienced abortionists practised safely.

Very usefully, the first chapter on “Restricted choices for women” provides a general overview of births outside of marriage, adoption, children who entered institutions, baby farming, infanticide and suicide. As she does in most chapters, Sparrow also provides evidence of different practices among Māori. She has also a rather tacked-on section on 19th-century feminism, clearly meaning to link progress on reproductive issues to organised feminist movements, although the 19th-century movement had its conservative and moralistic aspects, which are not acknowledged. An exhaustive chapter on contraception follows, and most interesting are the local advertisements discreetly advertising to married couples with photographs of  Rendell’s pessaries (“The Wife’s Friend”) and a widely available vaginal sea sponge from Sparrow’s own collection. Given that the birth rate and size of families dropped significantly over the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that contraceptive methods were “unreliable, knowledge about them was prohibited, the medical profession frowned upon them and the government actively discouraged their use”, it is amazing just how clearly “motivation overcame barriers”.

An interesting chapter details doctors who became abortionists. Dr John Hayes was charged in the magistrate’s court in Temuka in 1880 with having attempted to procure an abortion for his widowed housekeeper, Maria Phillips. The magistrate rejected the charge and Dr Hayes was cheered by a large crowd when he left the courthouse, demonstrating that the public, despite the opposition and denunciation of the medical profession, church and state, accepted the necessity of abortion in some cases. The tacit support of family, communities and some doctors is clear in many of the cases recounted.

The chapter on chemists is fascinating and demonstrates that they were even more important in the practices surrounding abortion than the “medical men”. They advertised in the daily papers and were hard to convict, because their pills and potions could be used for a wide variety of ailments. Catheters, dilators, and syringes could similarly be used for a whole range of reasons. The medications or correctives were used to “correct irregularities”, “bring on the courses”, “correct obstructions” or “correct stoppages”. Quickening, or the stage when women first felt the baby move, was the 19th-century cut-off for further intervention. Before that time, it was not necessarily considered an abortion or miscarriage.

Female abortionists usually had a background in nursing. At a time when women didn’t usually go into hospitals for birth and when medical care was often some distance away, female family members and neighbours played significant roles. Most communities openly supported a role for women in childbirth and miscarriage and clandestinely supported their role in providing abortions. Most of these would have been discreet and successful, but left no historical record.

Self-abortion was probably the most frequent way to end a pregnancy. Stories of poisonings are recounted in some detail. As Sparrow makes clear, there was sometimes little safety margin between a therapeutic and a poisonous dose. “Hickory Pickories” (a corruption of hiera picra – holy bitter or bitter pill) was a common, all-purpose medicine used in the 18th century. It contained aloe and canella bark and was very bitter. It was taken with gin to induce an abortion and features in one account. Another woman inserted a piece of whalebone, used to stiffen corsets, and died subsequently.

The final chapter, “Lessons from history”, compares then to now and looks forward. The comparison between 19th– and 21st-century conditions is rather forced, given the radically different political and social circumstances. Sparrow’s larger purpose is to chart the major changes since the 19th century and to argue for treating abortion as a health and welfare issue rather than a crime. She reminds the reader that our laws are moderately restrictive, permitting abortion on health grounds. We sit alongside Botswana, Colombia, Ghana and Thailand, and are more restrictive than Australia, Canada, the United States and India.

This book will be indispensable to all those interested in the social policy, medical and welfare history and the history of women in 19th-century New Zealand. In capturing the detail and texture of some of these women’s lives and deaths, and the toll on families and communities, this book is a salutary reminder of a time when women could not safely and effectively control their own fertility. This is an aspect of history that we do not want to repeat and yet some women still cannot choose when and where to bring a child safely into the world.

Bronwyn Labrum is Associate Professor in Visual and Material Culture at Massey University, Wellington.

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Posted in Gender, Health, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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