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 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.
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.
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.
From 1900 new barrier methods of birth control – condoms and cervical caps – were used, but only by a small proportion of couples. The birth rate kept dropping – to 2.1 births per non-Māori woman by the 1930s.
Condoms were imported and sold in tobacconists and pharmacies, and ordered by individuals from overseas by mail order; the rubber of the thick pre-shaped condoms often perished on the sea journey. The weekly newspaper NZ Truth regularly advertised ‘marriage hygiene’ products. In the 1930s the New Zealand Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society was opposed to the use of contraception.
It was widely believed that condoms, diaphragms and pessaries were deliberately made to be unreliable. Family Planning secretary Mary Dobbie wrote, ‘The story circulated that one pessary in every packet was a dud, placed there by manufacturers to comply with some mysterious legal proviso to their sale. It was also whispered that every packet of condoms … contained one pin hole in it for the same reason.’1
By the 1920s women were using cervical caps and rubber diaphragms, which fitted over the cervix and were often used with pessaries (small soluble contraceptives) made from cocoa butter and quinine. Some women made their own, and shared their recipes with friends. Caps and diaphragms were fitted by obstetricians and gynaecologists; doctors had no training in birth control and were usually opposed to it. The rubber diaphragm became the most popular barrier method in the 1940s.
Māori did not adopt these new birth-control methods, and Māori families remained large until the 1960s. In 1945 Māori women had an average of 6.5 children.
One woman remembered that her grandfather, Auckland grocer Fred Hutchinson, used to import his own condoms. ‘One parcel burst and he had to collect it at the Post Office. When they asked what the contents were, he replied, “Gardening gloves”. After having one child in 1913, my grandmother, Amy, wanted no more. But she told me about the night in 1918 when Fred exclaimed, “Dear, I have to tell you there was a hole in that condom!” My father was the result. Amy went on to campaign for better maternity care and was elected to the Auckland Hospital Board.’2
From the 1930s the rhythm method, confining sex to the ‘safe period’ when conception is least likely, became popular. Before the 1930s manuals stated that the safe period was in the middle of the menstrual cycle – when a woman is actually most likely to conceive.
Catholics often used the rhythm method, calling it 'natural family planning', after Pope Pius XII sanctioned it in 1951 as ‘natural’, because it did not kill sperm (like spermicides) or frustrate the normal process of procreation (like the diaphragm). However, this method of contraception is not entirely effective, as it can be difficult to assess women’s precise stage in the menstrual cycle.
Abortion was a default form of contraception, as some women who aborted their foetuses might have used contraception if it had been available. A 1936 commission of inquiry found that one in five New Zealand pregnancies ended in abortion, and that most women having abortions were married and already had at least four children.
In 1961 the big breakthrough in contraception came to New Zealand when doctors started prescribing ‘the pill’ – specifically Anovlar, manufactured by Schering. The contraceptive pill had been developed in the United States. The research was instigated by nurse and birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger and continued by Dr John Rock. The pill was endorsed by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1960. It gave progestin (synthetic progesterone) and oestrogen hormones in tablet form to shut down ovulation so no egg would be released. An artificial menstrual bleed was triggered by taking a week’s break from the pill each month.
The year the pill arrived in New Zealand, 1961, was the peak of the post-war baby boom, when New Zealand women had an overall average of 4.3 children. Though the baby boom continued into the early 1970s, the use of the pill had a significant effect on the birth rate. The boom was followed by what has been called a ‘baby bust’, the birth rate dropping to about two children per woman for both Māori and Pākehā in the 1980s and beyond.
New Zealand women started using the pill more quickly than those in most other Western countries. But it was difficult for unmarried women to get the pill until the 1970s, and the pregnancy rate for Pākehā teenagers reached an all-time high around 1970.
‘Going on the pill’ gave women real control over their fertility for the first time. With reproductive choice, more women delayed marriage and childbirth, stayed in the workforce, went to university and pursued careers. By 1978 the birth rate had fallen below the previous all-time low of the 1930s economic depression, and in 1983 the overall rate was 1.8 children per woman.
The pill set the scene for what was called the ‘sexual revolution’. ‘For the first time, the bonds of sex and reproduction had been broken, meaning sex was now a means of love and pleasure as well as reproduction,’ commented Dr Margaret Sparrow, New Zealand’s leading contraception specialist from the 1960s to the 2010s.1
The early high-oestrogen pill had unpleasant side-effects, including weight gain and headaches, and became less popular from the mid-1970s. The mini-pill, containing progestin only, was introduced in 1973. The pill remained the most popular method of contraception in the late 2010s. Depo-Provera was the best-known of the long-acting contraceptive injections which became popular from the early 1970s. It was often a preferred method for Māori and Pasifika women. Women raised concerns about the safety of Depo-Provera from the late 1970s, and by the late 1980s fewer women were using it. Implants became a popular choice about 2005. The 'implant' is a small hormone-releasing rod, usually placed under the skin above the elbow by a health professional.
The morning-after pill – renamed ‘emergency contraception’ in the mid-1990s – had to be taken within 72 hours of intercourse. It gave high doses of the same hormones used in the contraceptive pill, and was used by women who had had unprotected sex and feared they might conceive. The most popular method in the late 2010s is progestogen-only. This is safer than alternatives, has fewer side effects and can be taken later than 72 hours after intercourse.
Catholic women could not take the pill if they obeyed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical, which outlawed oral contraceptives and all other ‘artificial’ methods of birth control.
The rhythm method used by many Catholics, who called it 'natural family planning' and 'fertility awareness', was refined by Australian doctors John and Evelyn Billings in the 1960s. Working with indigenous people on offshore islands, the couple worked out that the consistency of a woman's cervical mucus was an indication of fertility.
The IUD or intrauterine device was introduced in the mid-1960s. Now termed an IUCD (intrauterine contraceptive device) it is inserted into the uterus. If this is not done carefully, it can perforate the wall of the uterus.
By 1975 about 500 women had had the Dalkon Shield, a brand of IUD, inserted at Auckland’s National Women’s Hospital – and an unknown number by their own doctors. The manufacturers had been forced to withdraw the Dalkon Shield in the United States the previous year. It was causing pelvic inflammatory disease, which led to sterility and sometimes death. Women sometimes did conceive with a Dalkon Shield – often leading to what was called ‘septic spontaneous abortion’ of the foetus, or babies born with deformities. New Zealand women raised concerns about the safety of the Dalkon Shield from the late 1970s. In the US women filed successful claims against the manufacturers, and some New Zealand women also received compensation.
By the mid-1970s, following the introduction of micro-surgical techniques, sterilisation became second only to the pill as a form of contraception. For women the procedure was tubal ligation (colloquially, ‘getting your tubes tied’) and for men a vasectomy (‘the snip’) – a much simpler and cheaper operation.
New Zealand had a high rate of sterilisation compared with other Western countries. By the time they turned 30, 20% of women born between 1946 and 1950 had been sterilised or their partner had had a vasectomy. By the late 1990s sterilisation of one member of a couple (usually the male) was the most common contraception method used by women over 30.
New Zealand has a high rate of vasectomy – a simple operation in which the tube that carries the sperm from the testis is cut and sealed off. It does not affect sex drive or the production of sex hormones, and can later be reversed, if desired. In the late 1990s a survey of 1,225 Pākehā men aged between 40 and 74 found that 44% had had a vasectomy. Those aged 40–49 had the highest rates (57%) while those aged 70–74 years had the lowest (15%). Catholic men were much less likely to have had a vasectomy, while men who had been married more than once and those whose wives were more highly educated were more likely to have had the procedure. Men across all income levels had vasectomies. In 2007, 18% of all men, including 25% of married men and 55% of 40–49-year-olds, had had the procedure.
In the 1980s barrier methods became popular again. HIV/AIDS was the spur for campaigns promoting safer sex and condom use, and new, thinner and more effective condoms had been developed. In 1976, 6% of people using contraceptives chose condoms – in 2001, 36% used them.
In the early 21st century contraceptive methods also included implants, which were inserted under the skin of the woman’s upper arm. These released tiny doses of progestogen to prevent ovulation and could remain in place for up to five years.
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.
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.
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
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 referred to ‘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 were 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 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
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. Though it was illegal to even discuss contraception with under-16-year-olds until 1989, some feminists leafleted high schools with information about birth control in the early 1980s.
Sexuality education became compulsory up to Year 10 in New Zealand schools 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.
The first meeting of what became New Zealand’s first birth control group, the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society, took place in 1936, the impetus coming from Communist Party women who had set up the Working Woman newspaper.
One woman remembered trying to find out about contraception in the 1930s: ‘We had six [children] and we couldn’t afford to look after any more, so I asked the doctor what we could do. “Oh, nothing you can do about that”. That’s what he told me. … Talk about it with Stan [her husband]? We didn’t talk those days; we just didn’t talk about it. Stan’s mother used to say: “Poor Stan, another baby,” as if I was the one to blame. And no “Poor Vera”.’1
Elsie Freeman (later Elsie Locke) organised the first meeting, became the first secretary and wrote the first publicity pamphlet, which stated that the organisation aimed ‘to educate and enlighten the people of New Zealand on the need for birth control and sex education, and to promote the provision of facilities for scientific contraception so that married people may space or limit their families, and so mitigate the evils of ill-health and poverty’.2 The group changed its name to the New Zealand Family Planning Association (NZFPA) in 1939.
The group’s start was late compared with other Western countries, which had birth control organisations from the late 19th century – advocating contraception was largely unacceptable in New Zealand.
The society was initially supported by the Eugenics and Racial Improvement Society, but also faced a great deal of opposition, particularly from doctors. When association members Jean Dawson and Isobel Pope visited Wellington obstetricians and gynaecologists in the late 1930s, most opposed birth control. ‘Sometimes we were hustled to the door as though we were sluts,’ Dawson wrote.3
In the 1940s the Family Planning Association’s Jean Dawson imported the book Parenthood, design or accident. A customs officer phoned to say the book’s diagrams were unacceptable to some sections of the community. Then the police rang to say a detective would call on her. Jean invited committee members to a meeting at her house, telling them to bring their children. The detective found the women having morning tea surrounded by noisy toddlers and babies. He left saying, ‘Can see you aren’t against people having children.’4
When the NZFPA sent out a circular to women subscribers of Woman To-Day magazine in 1940 to boost membership, it received a police summons for sending obscene literature through the mail. The Post Office said the letter was obscene as it contained the word ‘contraception’.
The group decided not to advertise, hold public meetings, contact the press or send circular letters. It answered individual letters – 2,317 between 1941 and 1946 – usually advising women to get a cervical cap fitted by a doctor. In 1945 it had a list of 40 doctors for referrals.
New Zealand’s first family planning clinic finally opened above a mechanic’s garage in Remuera, Auckland, in November 1953. The world’s first clinic had been opened by the first Dutch woman physician, Dr Aletta Jacobs, in Amsterdam in 1882. Margaret Sanger had been jailed for opening the first US clinic in New York in 1915, while Dr Marie Stopes had opened Britain’s first clinic in 1921.
The Auckland clinic was expensive; women paid two guineas ($115 in 2019 terms) for two years’ ‘supervision’, plus the cost of contraceptives. A second clinic opened in Christchurch in 1956, initially for just one afternoon a week, with Judy Lunn becoming the first New Zealand-trained family planning nurse. NZFPA became an associate member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1955, and a full member in 1959.
Just as NZFPA was gaining acceptance in the community, the New Zealand (British) Medical Association suspended formal recognition of the society in 1960, writing, ‘We do not think that the private, personal and intimate purposes can be served as well by lay societies of more or less corporate organisation, requiring press publicity and subscriptions but not professional status.’5 The Health Department agreed to fund some of the organisation’s work in the late 1950s, but not its contraceptive work. The government finally began subsidising this in 1972.
NZFPA doctors started prescribing the pill to married women from 1964 and unmarried women from the early 1970s, bringing renewed disapproval from doctors. In 2007 the organisation changed its name to Family Planning.
In the early 21st century, as well as supplying contraceptives and carrying out vasectomies, its services included cervical smears and tests for sexually transmissible infections as well as wide-ranging educational programmes, including for parents on how to talk to their children about sex. From 2013 Family Planning offered early medical abortion (before nine weeks' gestation) at its Tauranga clinic.
Brookes, Barbara, Claire Gooder, and Nancy De Castro. 'Feminine as her Handbag, Modern as her Hairstyle: The uptake of the contraceptive pill in New Zealand.', New Zealand Journal of History Volume 47, no. 2 (2013): 208-231.
Pool, Ian, Arunachalam Dharmalingam, and Janet Sceats. The New Zealand family from 1840: a demographic history. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.
Pool, Ian, and others. New Zealand’s contraceptive revolutions. Hamilton: Population Studies Centre, University of Waikato, 1999.
Rout, Ettie. Safe marriage: a return to sanity. London: Heinemann, 1922.
Smyth, Helen. Rocking the cradle: contraception, sex and politics in New Zealand. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2000.
Tolerton, Jane. Ettie: a life of Ettie Rout. Auckland: Penguin, 1992.
Tolerton, Jane. Ettie Rout: New Zealand's safer sex pioneer. Auckland: Penguin, 2015.
Dame Margaret Sparrow interview about the history of contraception in New Zealand, 6 May 2015.
An organisation that has provided family planning and contraceptive advice to New Zealanders since 1936.