By Dame Margaret Sparrow

Inaugural Doris Gordon Memorial Oration delivered by Professor Ronald W Jones CNZM at the Annual Scientific Meeting of RANZCOG (Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) Friday 2 October 2015, Wellington.

Professor Jones retired after 37 years as a visiting obstetrician and gynaecologist at the National Women’s Hospital and more latterly as a clinical professor at the University of Auckland. He co-authored the paper that led to the cervical cancer inquiry and in a 2010 New Zealand Herald article by Martin Johnston described himself as a whistleblower. This article also recalls how he stood up for abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality in 1977 when the new abortion laws came into effect.

Professor Jones has spent the last two years researching the contributions to maternal health of Dr Doris Gordon, MBE, which were indeed many, including the formation of the chair in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Otago University and the eventual formation of a postgraduate school of Obstetrics & Gynaecology in Auckland which evolved into National Women’s Hospital.

In 1927 Doris formed the New Zealand Obstetrical Society and became its national secretary which she used as a platform for her many campaigns. The Society was actively supported for many years especially by GP obstetricians but with declining membership the Society lapsed and held its last meeting in 2004. Professor Jones approached the last President of the Society who generously agreed to transfer the residual funds of $160,000.00 to enable a new trust to be formed to be named the Doris Gordon Memorial Trust. RANZCOG already supports the Mercia Barnes Trust devoted to encouraging young researcher in women’s health. The new trust will focus on education rather than research.

Professor Jones sought the assistance of Mrs Marie Taylor, an active member of NCW the National Council of Women and widow of Mr John Taylor, an Auckland O&G specialist who provided abortion services. The reason for involving the NCW was because of that organisation’s support in the past for Doris’s crusades. The current NCW agreed to jointly form the Doris Gordon Memorial Trust with RANZCOG. Rae Duff, National President spoke briefly after the oration and she was accompanied by Claire Newton NCW’s Communications Advisor.

Dr Doris Gordon raised four children and her only surviving 87 year old daughter, Alison, presented Professor Jones with the inaugural Doris Gordon Oration medal. She was accompanied on stage by other family members, granddaughter, great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter, a babe in the arms of her parents. Chairman of the event was Trustee Mr John Tait, Vice President RANZCOG who had been approached by Professor Jones about RANZCOG’s involvement in the trust and who in turn had sought approval from the College Council.

The oration was a glowing tribute to Dr Doris Gordon and it would be churlish to cast aspersions on the value of her many campaigns to improve maternal and infant health and welfare. However, reflecting the attitudes of the medical profession of her time and her Christian faith she was opposed to contraception and abortion. Professor Jones had this to say of her role in the 1930s:

“The Obstetrical Society was prepared to give instruction in birth control where reasons of the health of the mother demanded it, but only through hospital clinics. The Society was, however, concerned there was no restriction on the sale of contraceptives, including to minors, and felt it was ‘contrary to the public interest’ for contraceptive knowledge to reach single men and women. During this time illegal abortion was a major source of concern for the Society and women’s groups, leading to the establishment of the Committee of Inquiry in 1936. During the previous year 45 maternal deaths had been attributed to criminal abortion – the average number of children born to each of these women was eight. In 1937, together with Dr FO Bennett from Christchurch, Doris wrote a controversial polemic, Gentlemen of the Jury in which they described their conservative views on contraception and the problem of illegal abortion. Senior members of the judiciary who proofed the book ‘all hoped that our agitation would do something to make stronger their positions with the professional abortionists’. While this book created controversy in the community it expressed the views held by most of the medical profession of the time. Doctors had created a dilemma for themselves: on the one hand there was an abhorrence of criminal abortion and its sequelae, while on the other a reluctance to promote birth control. The book aroused parliamentary debate, one MP observing: ‘Tomorrow the Springboks play the All Blacks in Auckland. I wonder how many of the 55,000 people who will be present will realise that during the actual period of play, one child – perhaps a potential All Black – will have been wilfully destroyed in the womb of its mother.!”

At this point one member of the audience, Dr Tony Krins of Melbourne walked out. When I spoke with him afterwards he said he had walked out in protest, appalled that RANZCOG had chosen to eulogise this bigoted woman.

At the commencement of his oration Professor Jones declared “Doris Gordon has made a greater contribution to the health and welfare of New Zealand women and children than any other individual – a bold statement which I believe to be true.” There must be a caveat to this statement. She would have contributed much more if she had challenged the prevailing views of the medical establishment regarding contraception and abortion. Although she publicly opposed abortion she was known to help what she regarded as deserving cases for serious medical reasons. Hypocrisy and arrogance are not unknown to those working in the field of abortion.

May her espoused views on contraception and abortion not influence the choice of educational projects which the Trust will support.

In conclusion I will quote from Alison McCulloch’s 2013 book ‘Fighting to Choose: The abortion rights struggle in New Zealand’.

Gentlemen of the Jury was published, with its harsh condemnation of the New Zealand woman (the ‘custodian of the race’) for ‘abusing’ birth control and moving ‘further and further away from her essential duty’. That ‘abuse’, they wrote, ‘coupled with the rising tide of abortions, threatens in a very few years to extinguish white people’. Birth control information, the good doctors argued, was ‘meant to benefit the few, but has become a way of escape from duty for the majority’. In an approving commentary on the book, the Dean of Otago University Medical School Sir H. Lindo Ferguson, wrote that the problem of women limiting their families was not confined to New Zealand, ‘but is one concerning most of the peoples of our Western civilization. Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy are both alarmed at the declining birth rate of those countries and have inaugurated crusades against contraception and abortion’.

For her part, Doris Gordon was still aboard the eugenicist bandwagon in 1944, praising New Zealand women who became mothers while their husbands were at the front. ‘These women are British to the very core,’ she told a National Council of Women meeting, adding, according to the Taranaki Herald, that the threat of the ‘yellow races’ had brought home to New Zealanders the need to increase and maintain the white race.

The ‘selfishness’ charges directed at women seeking abortions are reminiscent of attacks earlier in the twentieth century on those who sought to use contraception to limit their families, like the remonstrances in 1937 by Drs Gordon and Bennett of selfish women who evaded their duty by using births control.”

Margaret Sparrow

3 October 2015