Story: Contraception and sterilisation

Page 1. 19th-century contraception

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Contraception, also known as birth control, is a deliberate effort to reduce the chances of conceiving a baby during sexual intercourse.

There were no reliable birth-control methods in the 19th century.

Māori contraception

Māori women used the poroporo plant for contraceptive purposes, boiling the leaves and drinking the water about a week before menstruation. While poroporo does contain the active ingredient of solasodine, a steroid used in making contraceptives, the efficacy of drinking the decoction is not known. The Māori birth rate was high – almost all women had children, starting at an early age.

Settlers and contraception

European women in New Zealand had a high fertility rate until the late 1870s. The great majority of women married, usually in their early 20s. Married women had an average of nine births; the average for all women was about 6.5. Women were expected to be celibate before marriage. Those who weren’t, and conceived, often married quickly so that their baby would be legitimate. Illegitimacy carried a strong stigma, and very few babies were born out of wedlock.

Traditional methods and abstinence

One traditional, temporary method of birth control was to extend breastfeeding, as this helped postpone ovulation. Some women tried traditional barrier methods of contraception, such as sea sponges soaked in vinegar to block and absorb semen. Douching (washing out the vagina with water) after sex was popular but ineffective.

The only sure way to avoid conception was abstinence. But as conjugal rights were part of marriage, and rape was not a crime within marriage, married women had little power to say no to sex.

Sexual practices that allowed pleasure while avoiding conception – such as oral or anal sex – were considered morally unacceptable by many people. Information about alternatives to the ‘missionary position’ was limited, as no sex manuals were available.


Most couples who wanted to avoid conception probably used withdrawal (coitus interruptus). This method is not very effective, but it can reduce the chances of pregnancy. The use of withdrawal contributed to falling birth rates in many Western countries in the late 19th century. In New Zealand, the Pākehā birth rate dropped by about 50% from 1878 to 1900, but this was mainly because a significant number of women remained single or married later. Married women continued to have large families.

How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Contraception and sterilisation - 19th-century contraception', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Dec 2018