Scoop Review of Books

Book of Secrets

Abortion Then & Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories From 1940 to 1980 By Margaret Sparrow
VUW Press. $45/$50. Review by Alison McCulloch


The grainy black and white image accompanying the introduction to Dame Margaret Sparrow’s powerful and heartrending book Abortion Then & Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories From 1940 to 1980 shows a fresh-faced young woman formally dressed in cap and gown, clutching a diploma and a posy of flowers. Contained within the caption information beneath is this surprising statement: “You are looking at a criminal.”

It was 1956 and, as Dame Margaret goes on to explain, for her, it had been “an eventful year”: She had married, been involved in a near-fatal car accident, graduated with a B.Sc., turned 21, got pregnant and had an abortion.
Later in the book, among the dozens of first-person stories from women who underwent illegal and legal abortions, from pro-choice advocates, from doctors, an abortionist and members of the police force, Dame Margaret expands on her own story. “In spite of my education,” she writes, “I initially tried DIY methods – skipping in the back yard and taking a whole bottle of De Witt’s pills.” None of these attempts worked, however, and she eventually wrote away to the Christchurch pharmacist George Bettle (whose own story, though not first-hand, also appears in the book) for a bottle of his mysterious black mixture. “I know such methods aren’t always successful, but in my case the pregnancy was early and it worked.” Which was precisely what made her, along with many other women in these pages, a criminal. In 1956, she writes, “self-abortion was a crime liable to a punishment of seven years in prison.”
Many of those telling their stories in this book, the culmination of a five-year history project supported by the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, had less luck. The gruesome tales of backstreet abortions gone wrong, of death by sepsis, of debilitating illnesses, of traumatic journeys to clinics in Australia, of knitting needles and dangerous potions and coerced sexual favours would be numbing in their horror but for the spirit – and, perhaps surprisingly, the frequent grim humour – of the women telling them. Like Marie, now in her 80s, who had two illegal abortions in the 1940s.

“My husband knew all about a woman who did abortions in Christchurch through a very good friend,” Marie said of the first. “I haven’t got a great memory for what happened, but I do remember lying on a bed and being fiddled with and what have you. It was not too painful.” The abortionist, Marie explained, told her she must “ ‘exercise until it happens.’ So off we went to see my husband’s uncle who had the biggest onion farm in New Zealand. I’d been an athlete so here I was hurdling over these sacks of onions. The next day I went into the tepid baths and did belly flops off the high dive board, and that night something came away.”

Three decades later, Ann, a mother of two, “joined the ranks of kiwi do-it-yourselfers” by performing an abortion on herself with a knitting needle on Christmas Day: “Christmas morning. Up early, boiled the jug, sterilized the needle, guessing how long it took. Be quick, food to prepare, presents to open, masks to don. Order the tasks for the day: abortion, turkey on, breakfast, open presents. OK, get the abortion out of the way; the turkey – how long will it take? It was big. How long will this take? It’s little.”

Like Margaret and Marie before her, Ann, was also one of the fortunate ones – if you can call women forced into self- or backstreet abortions fortunate. Not so the scores of women who died. Their stories have been largely lost, but where there was an inquiry or the matter came to public notice, such cases could be pieced together, and this book includes a sobering selection.

Among them, Mrs. H, 29, who died in Palmerston North in January 1941 as a result of an illegal abortion she had had 16 days earlier; Miss S, 28, who managed to act as principal witness against her abortionist in a special sitting of the Police Court in Auckland just 8 days before her death in November 1941; Mrs. S, 23, who had an abortion after falling pregnant to another man while her military husband was stationed overseas, but died in Dunedin Hospital just under a month later; and 16-year-old Miss M of Auckland who wouldn’t give up her abortionist before she died, though “she did say an operation had been performed by a retired chemist, and her mother knew about it”.

The government didn’t begin gathering reliable abortion statistics until the 1970s, so we don’t know how many abortions were carried out during most of the years covered by this book, nor how many women died from them. But the situation was so serious in the 1930s that the government set up a committee of inquiry, which estimated that about one in five pregnancies was being aborted, with the majority of those criminally induced.
By the 1970s, with pressure mounting for abortion law reform, deaths from illegal abortion had thankfully become a thing of the past (the book reports that the last publicized death at the hands of an illegal abortionist was that of a 16-year-old in 1968). By then, hundreds of women a year were traveling to Australia for abortions, or getting them “legally” in New Zealand from sympathetic doctors under the guise of diagnostic dilatation and curettage (D&C) or examination under anaesthetic (EUA). Then, in 1974, a sea change occurred when New Zealand’s first abortion clinic, the Auckland Medical Aid Centre, opened in Remuera.

Then, as now, the legislature had been loath to take any action on abortion, but the opening of the clinic changed all that. Spearheaded by the Abortion Law Reform Association, of which Dame Margaret is currently president, the clinic sparked what would become more than three years of political turmoil over abortion, culminating in 1977 in the passage of the current law, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. The story of AMAC is also briefly told in these pages, and the never-before published first-person accounts from those involved in the clinic give an invaluable insight into the political side of this endlessly litigated issue.

The book also reveals for the first time some of the more extreme anti-abortion harassment faced over the years by those involved – harassment New Zealand prefers to pretend doesn’t exist here. (The book doesn’t cover the late 80s, when the U.S.-inspired Operation Rescue became locally active.)

Among those targeted was John Taylor, an obstetrician-gynaecologist of Auckland. Interviewed in 2006 for the book (he died in 2008), he describes what happened when the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), discovered his involvement in the Auckland Hospital Board’s Epsom Day clinic:

“SPUC used to protest outside our home when we had young children. It was pretty tough on the kids to have these banners and so on. My car used to be attacked, and graffitied and tyres let down. They’d put stickers on the front and back windows – ‘Baby Killer’ – and all that kind of thing.”

Another physician, Diana Nash, had picketers outside her home for several days “holding placards saying ‘Auschwitz Doctor’ and ‘Dr Nash Murders Babies.’” Her primary-school-age children, she writes, “were wide eyed with disbelief. I recall they said, ‘Mum, what have you being doing?’ A quick political explanation followed.”

Dame Margaret herself, also a physician, has been a focal point of anti-abortion harassment throughout her career, and she still is. This has included having crosses planted in her garden, leaflets delivered throughout her neighborhood, and an attempt to have a truckload of wet cement dumped in her driveway (prevented by a sharp-eyed neighbour).

Abortion remains a crime in New Zealand, although increasingly liberal practice since the late 1970s has made abortion services more widely accessible, and extremely safe. That practice, however, is currently being challenged in the courts by the anti-abortion group Right to Life, which is seeking a crackdown on certifying consultants – the doctors who authorise all abortions preformed in New Zealand. (A ruling is expected from the Court of Appeal in the coming months.)

But if there’s one thing this book shows, it’s that whatever the law and however harshly it is imposed, women who need abortions will seek them any way they can, and they will risk injury and death to do so.
Perhaps the best last words are from one of those women. Julie is now in her 70s and in the book she tells the story of an abortion she had in 1956, after which she was hospitalized with a serious infection.

“On a personal level I hope that by sharing my story I can help others to face life’s experiences and take more responsibility for their own health,” she says. “On a political level I hope that it will strengthen the resolve to provide services that better meet the needs of women.”


Alison McCulloch’s book reviews have appeared here and in other publications including The New York Times.
(Reviewer Disclosure: Alison is a member of ALRANZ for which she does voluntary communications work, she appears in this book’s acknowledgements and is herself at work on a book about abortion politics in New Zealand from the 1970s to the present day from a feminist perspective.)


  1. Mae, 29. November 2010, 9:13

    Fantastic review I can’t wait to read this book. Everyone in New Zealand should read it.

  2. Alison, 30. November 2010, 18:45

    Yes indeed, they should. Thanks for the kind feedback.