Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
It was estimated in the early 20th century that a quarter of all maternal deaths in New Zealand were attributable to abortion. Such deaths probably peaked in 1942, when 32 deaths resulted from 172 cases of officially notified septic abortions. The number of actual abortions and the number of deaths (from all abortion-related causes) was probably much higher, since abortion in most cases occurred outside hospitals – and outside the law. The death rate dropped gradually until the last officially recorded death from illegal abortion, in 1968.
The decline in death rates (and in side-effects from unsafe abortions, such as sterility) is due to various factors. These include improvements in antibiotics (which reduced deaths and damage from sepsis), improvements in surgical and medical abortion technologies (legal and illegal), greater boldness on the part of doctors to push the boundaries of the abortion law during the 1960s and early 1970s, and, finally, a late 1970s change in the law governing abortions, which had the (unintended) effect of leading to improved access to safe, legal abortions.
This law, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act (first passed in December 1977 and amended in 1978 to its current form) was actually intended to make access to legal abortion more difficult and restrictive – even though this was against the wishes of the majority of New Zealanders in the early 1970s.
National Research Bureau polls in 1972, 1974 and 1976 consistently found strong majorities supporting legal abortion where pregnancy might endanger the mother’s physical or mental health, where pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if the foetus was abnormal, or even if the woman and her doctor agreed it was necessary within the first three months of pregnancy. Further, during that time there was also a halving, from 14 to seven, in the percentage of respondents saying that abortion should never be legal in any circumstances.
The conscience of Parliament, exercised by an unrepresentative group of senior Pakeha males (there were only four women MPs and four Maori MPs in 1977), was thus clearly at odds with the conscience of the nation. It is that national conscience, coupled with a will to make the Act work for women, that currently protects the lives and health of women from the dangers and trauma of illegal abortion. Why and how did this change come about, and could it be reversed?
Margaret Sparrow’s book is the first in a series of publications planned by the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ), which aims to document all matters pertaining to abortion in New Zealand in a comprehensive manner, using both the considerable research archives that ALRANZ itself has built up in its 40-year existence, and a lot of supplementary research. It focuses on oral history and primary sources, telling the stories of some of the survivors of illegal abortions, and of some of those who did not survive. It also includes the first-hand experiences of a number of those who were involved in enforcing the law, in finding ways around it, and in campaigning to change it.
This project began in 2005 by seeking the experiences of those involved in abortion matters between 1940 and 1980. The first date is about as far back as the memories of those still living will stretch; the second represents the effective end of illegal abortion in New Zealand, with the re-opening of the Auckland Medical Aid Centre and the establishment of abortion facilities in or by public hospitals.
The book is organised by decades, with introductory sections on the medical, legal and criminal issues relating to abortion in that decade, and then the first-hand stories of survivors. The stories were obtained via letters and emails, or by interviews. In some cases they are anonymous, but a lot of women (including Sparrow herself) are now prepared to admit to undergoing an illegal abortion in order to add weight to efforts to ensure abortion is resorted to as little as possible, and that, when it is required, it is done as quickly and safely as possible.
Some of the survivor stories are harrowing, in terms of the physical pain, and damage and risk to life endured by some survivors, and also the lack of emotional and practical support available from those who should have cared most – parents, siblings and, of course, the man responsible for the pregnancy. Even more harrowing are the stories of those who died from illegal abortions performed by amateur abortionists, who were brought before the courts for their crimes. Sparrow selected these stories from newspaper accounts of abortion-related court cases.
By collating these stories Sparrow’s book is a new and very useful contribution to the literature on abortion in New Zealand, and certainly the most comprehensive historical work published to date. It is clearly written and well-referenced, and it will be of considerable use to anyone interested in the history of human sexuality and reproduction, women’s rights and struggles, and New Zealand law and politics. It does contain some minor errors that future historians will need to watch out for (for instance, the man in the photograph on p204 is not who it is claimed he is, nor could he have been the “president” of the Values Party, since the party did not use that term for its leaders), but on the whole the material is well-researched and good as far as it goes.
I say as far as it goes principally because Sparrow’s treatment of the 1970s, and especially of the campaigns to change the abortion law, is only a partial account. She herself acknowledges this, and I do not wish to criticise her for not writing a book she never intended to write. Nevertheless, changes to abortion law and practice were not just achieved by the ALRANZ activists or those associated with them, who are the only campaigners well-documented in this book. A full history of this decade’s struggle for reproductive rights will need to range more widely and dig more deeply into the experiences of women in the feminist movement who were also involved in campaigning for change.
I was one of those, and when editor of Broadsheet magazine in 1977 and 1978, at the height of the struggle to change the law, I attended many meetings, took part in many actions, and wrote many articles on the issue. Christmas 1977 is memorable for me because of the abortion issue. When I returned to my family home in Christchurch that year, instead of doing last-minute Christmas shopping, I was busy pasting specially printed fliers with the contact numbers for the Sisters Overseas Service onto the front covers of all January 1978 Broadsheet magazines being distributed in the South Island. This is just one of hundreds of stories that could, and I believe should, be told to build up a complete picture of abortion activism in the 1970s.
As a lifetime student of politics I also see many other stories in embryonic form in Sparrow’s text. I found the interviews with doctors especially interesting, since doctors are well-educated people with high social status, who have the ability and sometimes the will to reflect and act on social improvements. Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry John Werry is one such person, and I was struck by what he said at the end of his interview: ‘’I think the history of the abortion movement is much more than the history of abortion. It is about the unresponsiveness of institutions we have in society.’’ Werry gave in evidence of his view the fact that two different juries in 1975 were not prepared to declare Dr Woolnough of the Auckland Medical Aid Centre guilty of carrying out illegal abortions under the old criminal law.
This lag between changes in social mores and their expression in law and government is common, but what is especially insidious and dangerous about it in New Zealand is the vulnerability of our democracy to misdirection by one or two powerful elite individuals. In the case of abortion, the link between Prime Minister Muldoon and SPUC president Des Dalgety was crucial. One Roman Catholic lawyer with the PM’s favour was enough to create a law which was unwanted by the majority of citizens, and actively opposed by an impressive array of New Zealand’s religious, business, academic, legal, sporting and political leaders (repeal patrons are listed on pp265-267).
Has this sort of thing happened since? Could it happen again? You betcha. In showing how it can happen, Abortion Then and Now is (alas) deeply relevant to more than abortion politics in Aotearoa, and just as relevant to students and practitioners of government as to those of public health and law.
Christine Dann is a Banks Peninsula-based writer, researcher and garden blogger.