This entry is part of an occasional “From Our Files” series in which we dig through ALRANZ newsletters and related files to give readers a bit of insight into the recent history (post-1960s) of the struggle for reproductive rights in New Zealand. All the entries are listed here.
From ALRANZ Newsletter April 1975:
“Characteristics of N.Z. Women Seeking Abortions In Australia”
A recent article in the New Zealand Medical Journal (1.) describes 145 New Zealand women seeking abortion at a Melbourne clinic between July 1972 and July 1974. The article is a harrowing account of the way in which, under the prohibitive abortion laws existing in this country, the physical and mental health of many women is jeopardized.
The age of the women ranged from 14 to 43 years, the average age being 21.4 years. Those women 20 years or under numbered 76 (including 8 schoolgirls under 16 years of age) while 18 were women 30 years or older.
It is not easy to fly to Australia for an abortion. The overall cost of the trip, in October 1974, was about $450.00. Most of the patients had not flown before and viewed the trip with some trepidation, in addition to having to contend with guilt and embarrassment about their condition.
The difficulties entailed in going to Australia meant that many of the women arrived at the clinic many weeks after becoming pregnant. The average gestational period was 10.6 weeks, and only 71 of the patients had been without a period for less than 11 weeks. As pregnancy progresses, the complication rates associated with abortion increase.
A prominent, and disturbing feature of the women was their ignorance and mis-use of contraception. Contraception had never been used by 43.5% of the women. Often the methods that were used were those most likely to fail, e.g. withdrawal, rhythm, misuse of foams or condoms. Only a quarter (25.5%) had ever tried oral contraceptives. None of the school-girls had ever used contraceptives. Few of the patients in the 30 years and over group with completed families had discussed tubal ligation or vasectomy with their spouse or doctor as a means of making sure they did not get pregnant again.
Most of the women in the study were young and single. Their problems were bad enough but perhaps the saddest group were those patients over 30. Some had families completed or grown up. Others had families with mentally retarded or mentally ill members. Such problems were sometimes compounded by gynaecological or other illnesses likely to make pregnancy a risky undertaking.
This article is a compelling addition to the case for abortion law reform and an enlightened attitude towards contraception and sterilization. As long as the law remains unreformed, the repression and suffering of many New Zealand women will continue.
(1.) Rogers, A.F.C and Judith F. Lenthall. 1975. Characteristics of New Zealand women seeking abortion in Melbourne, Australia. NZ Med J. 81: 282-286
Prior to the 1977 Contraception, Sterlisation and Abortion Act, and the associated amendments to the Crimes Act, New Zealand’s abortion laws were essentially replicas of England’s 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which included prison terms of up to 14 years for those performing an illegal abortion and seven years for the woman. The only ground for abortion was “preservation of the life of the mother”.