Story: Abortion

Page 1. Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s

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Attitudes to abortion

Abortion – deliberately ending a pregnancy – was almost always illegal and often difficult to obtain until the 1970s. The churches condemned it, most doctors disapproved, and women who had abortions did not publicly admit it.

But in practice many people were not opposed. Contraceptive methods were limited and ineffective in the 19th century, and remained unreliable and difficult to get during much of the 20th century. Pills that promised to ‘restore regularity’ were easily available for women to take if their period was late (though they may not have been very effective). Men having affairs sometimes paid for their lover to have an abortion. Couples decided that they could not cope with another baby, and the woman went to a local abortionist. When abortionists were prosecuted, juries often found them not guilty.

Bleak equality

Writer and journalist Robin Hyde became pregnant to a married man in 1930. When he suggested she pay half the cost of an abortion, Hyde thought, ‘You can’t say we haven’t got sex equality all right’.1 She had the baby in secret, not telling her family. Her son grew up in a foster home.

Abortion law

English law, applied in the country from 1840, outlawed abortion. Once New Zealand was self-governing, Parliament passed legislation in 1867 making it an offence to use any means to cause miscarriage.

There was a very limited right to abortion when a woman’s life was in danger. In the late 1930s this right was extended by a court judgment. It became legal for a doctor to perform an abortion when a woman’s life or mental health was endangered by continuation of a pregnancy. But abortion was still strongly disapproved of, and many doctors refused to perform the operation.

Legal responsibility for abortion depended on the circumstances. If a pregnant woman went to an abortionist, she was an accomplice to the crime, and the abortionist was the criminal. A woman trying to induce her own abortion was the criminal.

Backstreet abortion

Frances Quinn, untrained and incompetent, performed abortions. In 1922 two young women, both pregnant to married men, sought her help. Mona Hamon barely survived. Quinn’s first three attempts to provoke miscarriage by inserting an instrument failed, and her fourth effort, in a roadside ditch, caused blood poisoning and uncontrolled bleeding. Hamon spent six weeks in hospital recovering. Eileen O’Donoghue died. After her abortion she struggled home to Napier from Gisborne, telling a taxi driver that she’d had a ‘very rough spin’. She died in hospital soon after, suffering from acute septic peritonitis.

Rate of abortion

Because of its illegality, the number of abortions being performed before the 1970s can only be estimated. At the time, estimates were based on numbers of women who were hospitalised after a botched abortion.

From 1927 the Department of Health required hospitals to report the number of women admitted due to septic abortions. In the mid-1930s a department official estimated 10,000 abortions took place each year (compared with around 28,000 live births). Septic abortions were estimated to cause a quarter of New Zealand’s maternal deaths.

Deaths due to abortion

The number of women who died as a result of home or back-street abortions is not known – doctors would sometimes give a different reason on death certificates to save a family shame. The number of those who died in hospital as a result of botched abortions leapt from 14 in 1927 (when records begin) to 42 in 1934. The numbers then dropped again, in part because antibiotics reduced deaths from blood poisoning.

Women’s work

In 1937 doctors Doris Gordon and Francis Bennett wrote Gentlemen of the jury, arguing the case against abortion. They said that women’s greater freedom was allowing them to ignore motherhood, which was their ‘essential duty’. Use of birth control and a ‘rising tide’ of abortions would ‘extinguish [New Zealand’s] white people’.2

Abortion panic: 1920s–1930s

After the First World War abortion became a public issue, debated by politicians, doctors and women’s groups, and in newspaper columns. Nationally known doctors, including Frederic Truby King of the Plunket Society and Doris Gordon of the Obstetrical Society, argued that abortion (along with birth control) was to blame for a falling birth rate and the possibility of ‘racial decline’ (the loss of European population dominance).

In 1936 the government set up a committee to consider the high rate of death caused by back-street abortions. The committee’s report focused on the falling birth rate, and was strongly against abortion. However, panic about the birth rate and abortion was overtaken by war and then by a baby boom.

  1. Quoted in Jacqueline Matthews, ‘Hyde, Robin.’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 11 March 2011). Back
  2. Doris C. Gordon and Francis Bennett, Gentlemen of the Jury. New Plymouth: Thomas Avery, 1937, p. 18. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Abortion - Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 8 Nov 2018