It was difficult to get information about contraceptives until the second half of the 20th century. New Zealand did not have laws against the use of contraception, but there were regulations that stopped people finding out about birth control methods – and sex in general. Doctors who opposed birth control often refused to tell female patients how to avoid pregnancy.
Birth control blamed
The massive fall in the Pākehā birth rate from about 1880 was blamed on birth control, and set off a ‘moral panic’. ‘Eugenic’ thinking, emphasising the health of ‘the [European] race’ and the need for a larger population, referred to birth control as ‘race suicide’. Eugenics dominated the national debate on many issues in the early 20th century, including the place of women, who were repeatedly told that motherhood was their duty, and study or work would endanger their fertility, their only means of real fulfilment.
We need to breed
Public figures condemned contraception. MP James Allen’s comments in Parliament in 1906 were typical: ‘There exists in this community … the horrible habit of utilising means, preventatives, and so on, which interfere even with nature itself … We ought to deal with [this] promptly and effectively … for there can be no healthy national life and growth unless we breed as we ought to breed.’1
Birth control information censored
A 1906 law allowed the Post Office to refuse to deliver – and to destroy – letters or packages suspected of containing references to sexual organs and contraceptives. The Indecent Publications Act 1910 said literature was obscene if it referred to the sexual organs, problems arising from sexual intercourse, or contraceptives. The Customs Department could refuse entry to books considered obscene. Even the word ‘contraceptive’ was considered obscene – which is why advertisements for contraception in NZ Truth used the term ‘marriage hygiene’ products.
The ban on contraceptive information was inconsistent. When Safe marriage by Ettie Rout, a New Zealander living in London, was banned in 1923, newspapers pointed out that other books were available. They probably meant Marie Stopes’s best-selling Married love and Wise parenthood (1918), which had popularised the concept of birth control in Britain. As a result, the government agreed to have a censor to decide which books were indecent and set up a censorship appeal board. Safe marriage remained banned in New Zealand while multiple editions sold in Britain and Australia.
In 1943, MP William Polson told Parliament that an Auckland firm had imported ‘3000 gross of a singularly noxious aid to race-suicide’2 – presumably meaning condoms – and said they should be sold only on a medical certificate.
Doctors oppose birth control
Doctors were generally opposed to birth control. A 1922 New Zealand Medical Journal editorial said there were ‘no words sufficient to express our contempt’ for couples using birth control, a result of ‘selfishness in its most revolting form, usually on the part of the mother’, and that arguments for birth control did violence to ‘everything that is sacred in the name of nature, morality, science and common sense’.3
Doctors were not trained in birth-control methods. Contraceptive specialist Dr Margaret Sparrow remembered that when she trained in the 1950s, ‘[w]e had a total of one lecture on contraception – it was always a bit of a joke. The lecture hall was packed.’4
No information for young people
Birth control was seen as encouraging ‘immorality’ – generally defined as sex outside of marriage. The official thinking was that denying young people knowledge about contraception would stop them having sex. Women's health reformer Dr Doris Gordon wrote in 1938, ‘The widespread advertising of birth control goods … is a great temptation to our youth to premature sexual experiments.’5
After the release of the 1954 Mazengarb report from the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents, the Police Offences Amendment Act made it illegal to discuss contraception with under-16-year-olds, or give them contraceptives.
After the pill arrived in 1961, contraception was finally openly discussed in the media. For ‘second wave’ feminists in the 1960s and 1970s access to contraception was an important demand. The New Zealand Family Planning Association was the leading provider of information on contraception. It was illegal to even discuss contraception with under-16-year-olds until 1989 – but some feminists leafleted high schools with information about birth control in the early 1980s.
Sexuality education became compulsory in New Zealand schools up to Year 10 in 2001. But individual schools could decide what to teach about sexuality and relationships, and they could fulfil the requirements without mentioning contraception. In the 2000s some organisations, including lobby group Family First, pushed for ‘abstinence-only’ education.