Risking Their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
Dear Len, I am afraid my boy friend is just another dirty rotten Aussie. I don’t think he ever had any intention of doing anything to help me … he’s all gas and wind … I haven’t any right to ask you to do this for me but would you go and see that Chemist who you said might do it and ask how much he charges … I will be grateful to you all my life and will never forget how straight and swell you are … Cheerio. Joan.
I adore Joan Sims of Onehunga. I feel like I know her. She wrote seven letters to her friend Len, all of them ending with “Cheerio, Joan”. The last one, undated, not posted, was written shortly after she found a woman in Dominion Road who, she tells Len, has “fixed her up”. “Well I had better not bore you any more with my troubles so I’ll say, Cheerio, Joan.”
Joan was 18 years old in 1939 when she died from peritonitis following a septic abortion. Her story, reconstructed from evidence at her inquest, the coroner’s report, and coverage in the New Zealand Herald, is a heartbreaking illustration of the desperation of women faced with an unplanned pregnancy.
Joan is one of the hundreds of women whose stories are told with care and compassion in Risking Their Lives. Dame Margaret Sparrow places these human tales against the backdrop of two world wars and the Great Depression, and in the context of a time when there was no reliable contraception and no safe, legal abortion.
This volume fits between Sparrow’s earlier books, Rough on Women which recorded abortion stories in 19th-century New Zealand, and Abortion Then and Now covering the years from 1940 to 1980. Turning 83 this year, Sparrow is filling in the gap – spurred, she says, by hearing the late Dr. Doris Gordon, a staunch anti-abortionist of the era, eulogised as recently as 2015. Sparrow worried we might be forgetting how so many women like Joan risked and lost their lives during those decades.
She begins, then, by describing how, in the early part of the 20th century, abortion had become a major public health issue – an extraordinary 13 “criminal” or self-induced abortions per 100 pregnancies, with the risk of death higher than for childbirth.
Sparrow has mined newspaper reports and editorials to give us a picture of social attitudes of the time. It’s easy to forget now that abortion and contraception were once regarded by those in charge as the same moral issue. A revelation, too, to discover the racism and misogyny behind it. There are table-thumping editorials in New Zealand Truth deploring any effort to control fertility as “race suicide”, “unnatural, immoral and unpatriotic” and “flying in the face of nature”. Sex was for procreation, not for pleasure – Truby King (the father of Plunket) abhorred contraception for “reducing the sexual act to mere pleasure with no burden of responsibility”. Who knows what nonsense women might get up to if they could have sex without being punished for it?
But Sparrow also reveals a disconnect between the law and its exponents on the one hand, and popular opinion on the other. Juries were often reluctant to convict women and their abortionists, and the doctors who turned up when things went wrong were frequently unwilling to report them to the authorities. Some even quietly performed abortions themselves, like Dr. Leggatt of Nelson, acquitted by a jury to applause from the gallery in 1901. When he died a year later, Dr. Leggatt’s funeral was well attended, Sparrow notes, “despite the rain”.
The book is illustrated with newspaper clippings, hand-drawn illustrations from court reporters, and photographs of the major players in the war on contraception and abortion – which appeared right alongside advertisements for “abortifacients” marketed for exactly those purposes: Lysol douches, whirling syringes, and the quaintly titled “Widow Welch’s Female Pills”. You could be tempted, between the wars, to send off for Towle’s Pills, described in the ad as “woman’s unfailing friend”.
Coroners’ reports don’t tend to come with happy endings, but Sparrow presents them like episodes in a dark soap opera: the mother of seven nipping over the hill from Lyttelton to Christchurch; the networks of women that would help a “girl in trouble”; the boyfriends, fiancés and husbands who dropped them off with begged or borrowed pounds, and picked them up later, hoping to find them well.
There are useful and honest bio-graphies of people who fought for change – New Zealand’s outspoken Ettie Rout (officially celebrated when she died, not for her remarkable work promoting condoms to the troops, but for her typing speed), America’s Margaret Sanger (who coined the phrase “birth control”) and Britain’s Marie Stopes (ghastly woman, it would seem, who nevertheless did good things).
As a history book, it uncovers the roots of how we got to where we are today, with abortion still treated as a crime rather than a health issue. And it ends with Sparrow’s vision for our future – one simple, cheap, reliable pill that women can take once a month in the privacy of their home when they don’t want to be pregnant, no longer risking their lives.
Michele A’Court is an Auckland comedian and writer, whose latest book is How We Met.