Before the 1970s few young women knew much about sex and reproduction, let alone contraception. The first Family Planning clinic opened in 1953, but until the 1970s women wanting contraception had to give their fiancé’s name and the date of the intended marriage. Between 1954 and 1977 it was illegal to sell contraceptives to anyone under 16 years of age. It was illegal to even discuss contraception with under-16-year-olds until 1989.
Many young pregnant women left town to hide their condition, which was seen as bringing shame on themselves and their families. Some stayed in a home run by a charity, which sometimes also ran an adoption agency. Others stayed with families as live-in, unpaid houseworkers. They would return home after the child had been born and adopted out, and the pregnancy could remain a secret.
Many single women who became pregnant were made to leave their homes before the baby was born. One woman recalled, ‘I remember my parents saying, “We’ve made a name and a place for ourselves in this town and we’re not going to have it spoilt by you, you’ll have to go away.” But they wanted to do what they thought was best for me too. They genuinely believed that if the baby was adopted out and I never saw it I could come back and start life again.’1
Contraception, abortion and pregnancy
Although ‘the pill’ (the oral contraceptive for women) became available in 1961, doctors were advised by their ethical committee in 1965 not to prescribe it to unmarried women. Before 1977 abortions were almost always illegal, expensive and dangerous.
Young women were at high risk of pregnancy. Births to women under 20 (including those who were married) climbed from 5,315 in 1962 to a high of 9,150 in 1972 – around 7% of all women aged 15–19. Almost one-third of the women who turned 20 in 1973 had already had a child.
Help for single mothers
A campaign for state help for sole parents had been growing since the mid-1960s. Many people who worked with single pregnant women saw the pain women went through in giving up a child; they also saw the struggles of those who tried to keep their children, and their difficulties in getting fathers to pay maintenance. They were well aware, too, of the shortfall in numbers of adoptive parents.
Many men contested paternity cases. A 1966 report by the Motherhood of Man Movement, a support organisation for single mothers, said: ‘[S]o many of the girls have lost the case even though the young man knows perfectly well that he is the father. It is altogether a humiliating experience. If the case is proved … payment of 25/- to 30/- weekly is ordered. There could be a great deal of difficulty in obtaining even this sum from the man if he decides to move on or marry someone else.’2
Benefits and maintenance
The Domestic Proceedings Act 1968 and the Legal Aid Act 1969 made it easier for a single mother to obtain maintenance from the child’s father. From mid-1968 single mothers became eligible to claim an emergency benefit, although many were not aware of this. A 1970 study of unmarried mothers who kept their children highlighted problems in access to income, childcare and housing.
In 1972 the Royal Commission on Social Security recommended a new statutory benefit for every parent raising a child alone, whether they had ever been married or not. In 1973 the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) was introduced.
Decline of adoption
The proportion of ex-nuptial children kept by single mothers started rising in the mid-1960s. The percentage of ex-nuptial births that resulted in non-family adoption fell from 41% in 1965 to 30% in 1972. In 1972/73 more babies were kept by their unmarried mothers (2,293) than were adopted by unrelated people (2,128).
By the mid-1970s the surplus of babies for adoption had disappeared. Placement of New Zealand children for adoption outside their birth families continued to decline. It has been fewer than 125 per year since 1993.
Although the DPB did enable more single women to keep their children, it was not the only or even the major reason for this change. Improvements in and easier access to contraception helped decrease pregnancies among single women. Between 1972 and 1982, numbers of births to women under 20 more than halved, from 70 per 1,000 to 30 per 1,000 annually. In 2002 the teenage birth rate reached a historical low of 25.5 per 1,000. By 2008 it had increased to 33.1 per 1,000, but dropped again to reach a new low of 18.5 births per 1,000 in 2015.
Parenting outside marriage
The shame of being an ‘unmarried mother’ lessened as more couples began living together and having children without marrying. In 1969 the Status of Children Act had removed the legal significance of illegitimacy.