A voice for the voiceless: the anti-abortion struggle in NZ

Numbers of abortions in NZ

The first dedicated abortion clinic opened in Epsom, Auckland,  in May 1974.  Every abortion is required to be recorded and so each year both the Abortion Supervisory Committee and Statistics NZ publish detailed graphs and figures.

From May 1974 to the end of December, 2010, there have been 426,085 abortions. The statistics for 2011 have yet to be published as the data was held in Christchurch and delayed due to the earthquakes.

How many abortions are there each year? In 2008, there were 17,940.  In 2009,  17,550 and in 2010 a decline to 16,630.

To put the numbers in perspective, the 3,270 babies aborted in 1974, would now be men and women aged 38, had they been allowed to live. The inevitable result of killing 426,085 babies is the loss of young people, a nation’s future dynamism, leaving an aging population.

If you are under 38, reading this, you are fortunate your mother chose to continue her pregnancy.

How it all began

Back in the Depression era of the 1930s, backstreet abortions were available and some doctors provided discreet services in their surgeries. Most pregnant single girls and young women were usually directed to a support network of farms, homes or church-run institutions until their babies were born and adopted.

Well into the 1960s, pregnant girls discreetly disappeared into this network until their babies were born and adopted. A former midwife in that era recalls girls talking about “gone to Piha”, “going up north”, “going to the country”. No one ever said anything when they returned.

The “sexual revolution” introduced new ideas on personal freedom which impacted on attitudes to abortion. In Britain, a new generation of reformers, impelled by the thalidomide tragedy took control of the Abortion Law Reform Association and transformed it into an effective pressure group.

After a long and sometimes bitter parliamentary campaign, the British Abortion Act was passed on 27th October, 1967. Abortion was permitted if the continuation of the pregnancy risked the physical and mental health of the mother.

However, the practical reality was soon abortion on demand. The introduction of suction abortion machines enabled a huge increase in numbers, with women flocking to British clinics from all over Europe.

Over the next ten years, similar campaigns resulted in 43 countries making pro-abortion law changes. The feminist movement regarding abortion as integral to “reproductive freedom” provided the dynamism for political and social change.

On January, 22nd, 1973, in Roe vs Wade, the US Supreme Court struck down all state laws and established abortion on demand in the fifty states.

New Zealand grapples with abortion law reform 

During the late 1960s it was suspected that abortion reform would follow the British example. Changes were taking place in Australian states and New Zealand had to be next.

Two Auckland-based doctors led the campaign against abortion. Both were aware that abortions had been gradually increasing in public hospitals and who among their colleagues would support changes to the law.

Dr Pat Dunn, a devout Catholic, worked as a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology. He collaborated with Professor Sir William Liley, an agnostic, who in 1963 pioneered a technique for carrying out blood transfusions on preborn children whose lives were in danger because of rH incompatability with their mothers.

The British Medical Journal published Sir William’s report as a historic first, not only as a breakthrough in the treatment of the disease, but also the first time a preborn child had been successfully treated as a patient in medicine.

The medical speciality of perinatology was established and internationally in medical circles, Sir William was known as the “Father of Fetology”.

He was very active in trying to educate the New Zealand public about the humanity of the preborn child from conception, through numerous newspaper articles. His opponents didn’t make the mistake of debating him on when human life began, they focussed on stories of women in particularly difficult circumstances who deserved access to safe and legal abortions.

Sir William Liley had huge mana and an attractive, down-to-earth personality. He exuded enthusiasm for the wonders of human life at the earliest stages. His exposition of the scientific realities made a lasting impression on his audiences whenever he spoke around New Zealand.

In March 1970, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) was established in Auckland with Sir William as national president. Earlier, he had addressed a packed out meeting in the Auckland Town Hall. He asked for the lights to be dimmed and in the near darkness played a tape recording of the heart beat of a 12-week old baby.

The loud regular swishing noise filled the Town Hall. The effect was dramatic and unforgettable.

Sir William and Dr Pat Dunn embarked on a series of whistle-stop recruitment tours around New Zealand. By 1972, SPUC had 25,000 members in 28 branches.

By 1975, there were 40,000 members in 56 branches.

Abortion was the most contentious issue in New Zealand. Families were divided, friends fell out, churches were split. If the subject was raised at a dinner party  uproar could be guaranteed. At the same time, the emerging feminist movement was marching in the streets with banners demanding abortion on demand.

A new popular women’s magazine Thursday played an influential role in changing cultural attitudes to abortion. Editor Marcia Russell focussed on sympathetic stories of women who faced with an unplanned pregnancy chose abortion either in NZ or flew to Sydney.

In 1970, the Abortion Law Reform Association of NZ (ALRANZ) was established and soon attracted a prestigious list of patrons and advisors. The Auckland Medical Aid Trust’s abortion clinic in Epsom catered for a constant stream of women and girls, all referred by sympathetic GPs.

The clinic survived efforts to close it down and inevitably it was followed by other clinics in the main cities, effectively undermining the abortion laws.

The Hospital Amendment Bill

Three and a half months after the Epsom clinic opened, Dr Gerard Wall (Labour MP for Porirua) introduced a private members bill to restrict abortion procedures to public hospitals. Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk supported the Bill.

On Friday, 30th August, 1974, the Bill passed its first reading with substantial support and seemed likely to become law. The next day, Prime Minister Kirk died. Labour elected Bill Rowling as their new leader, Gerard Wall’s bill slipped down the Order Paper.

When the second reading was debated on 23rd April 1975, the Epsom clinic was well established, which persuaded a increasing number of MPs that the bill should provide for the licencing of private hospitals to perform abortions. An amendment from the liberal MP for Remuera, Alan Highet provided for private clinics to be licenced by the Director-General of Health.

On 23rd, May, 1975, the Hospital Amendment Bill passed its third reading by 43 votes to 16. Prime Minister Bill Rowling announced that a Royal Commission would be established to examine abortion and what changes needed to be introduced to the law.

In July, 1975, the Auckland Medical Aid Trust announced that they had purchased a private hospital in which to perform abortions. The Director-General of Health, Dr John Hiddlestone duly gave his approval, the clinic closed down and thus the Aotea Day Hospital began in Epsom – later to become known as the Epsom Day Clinic.

The Woolnough Trial

Dr James Woolnough had worked as an abortionist in Sydney. He was in his late 50s when the Auckland Medical Aid Trust employed him as operating surgeon at their first clinic. Following complaints that abortions were being formed illegally, police raided the clinic and seized files. Eventually after two trials, the Court of appeal confirmed that Dr Woolnough was completely acquitted.

The practical effect of the case was to make it almost impossible to prosecute doctors as long as they claimed to believe that it was necessary to avert a danger to the patient’s mental health. For a prosecution to be successful, it would require that all members of the jury be convinced beyond reasonable doubt, that the doctor did not believe what he said he believed.

The United Women’s Convention in Wellington, 1975

The United Nations designated 1975 “International Women’s Year”, so in June and estimated 2,200 women from all over NZ converged on Wellington for the United Women’s Convention. The event was unprecedented and received major media attention. Participants in the Convention were overwhelmingly in favour of free access to abortion and claimed to be the voice of New Zealand women.

The Royal Commission gets under way.

The Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion received its warrant on 23rd June, 1975. On abortion, the Commission’s terms of reference were to investigate and report on:

“The state of the present law on abortion, its interpretation, its application in practice, whether it met the needs of society having regard to social and moral issues, including the rights of women and status of the unborn child.”

The Royal Commission handed down its final report on March 1977.

To be continued…