Story: Pregnancy, birth and baby care

Page 4. Childbirth, 1950s to 1980s

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Mood for change

From the 1950s social movements arose which challenged the medical profession’s control of childbirth. Critics, including Parents Centre (founded in 1952), said that women should be in control of the process. Where birthing should occur and who should be present became controversial.

After 1971 midwives were not permitted to deliver babies without a doctor on hand. At the same time the number of home births was increasing (though still relatively small), partly as a result of the feminist movement and the precedent for alternative options set by Parents Centre. The Home Birth Association was founded in 1978.

These social movements spread throughout New Zealand. They brought groups of like-minded women (and some men) together to network locally. This provided the basis for successful lobbying at a national and political level.

No men allowed

Senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington Jim Ritchie took action when he was prevented from being with his wife during a difficult birth in 1964. He lodged a complaint with the Wellington Hospital Board, which responded by formally excluding husbands from the delivery suite. Ritchie wrote an article criticising this decision for the Dominion newspaper and organised a protest meeting attended by 150 people. The board did not change its policy – by a margin of one vote – until 1971.

Changes in hospital care

Some hospitals made positive changes. Delivery suites were redecorated and lounges were provided for women. Later, birthing centres were established which tried to create a homely atmosphere. Some hospitals allowed husbands to attend births in the 1950s and 1960s. Wellington and Christchurch followed in the 1970s. De facto partners and boyfriends were allowed later.

Many small maternity hospitals closed between the 1970s and 1990s. Services were moved into large general hospitals. This was not popular with women. Some hospitals and later midwife groups opened special birthing units for low-risk women wanting intervention-free labours.

Midwife autonomy

The status of midwives assumed a critical role in childbirth debates. In the 1980s midwives campaigned to restore their ability to deliver babies without a doctor being present. The New Zealand College of Midwives was founded in 1989 to represent the profession.

These developments culminated in the Nurses Amendment Act 1990. Midwives became autonomous professionals like doctors. Women could choose an independent midwife, a general practitioner, a private obstetric specialist (who charged fees), a hospital-based team (midwives and doctors), or a combination. Birth could take place in hospital or at home.

The change was controversial. Some doctors were supportive, but others were concerned about issues like midwifery training for emergency services and access to pain relief for birthing women. A number of doctors argued that any birth without medical assistance was dangerous. Obstetricians (specialists in pregnancy and birthing) continued to offer free care to women in public hospitals when there were complications in a pregnancy or birth. They also offered care to women with normal pregnancies who were prepared to pay an extra amount as private patients.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Pregnancy, birth and baby care - Childbirth, 1950s to 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 24 Oct 2018