Activism gets going
In the decades following the Second World War, when the Pākehā birth rate was high, beliefs about sex, birth control and mothering were shifting, including amongst doctors. It became slightly easier to get an abortion.
The number of abortions performed in public hospitals jumped from less than 70 in 1965 to more than 300 in 1970. When court decisions in 1969 and 1970 made it easier to get abortions in Australia, some New Zealand women travelled across the Tasman for the operation.
Fearing that similar decisions would be made by a New Zealand court, and aware of the increase in hospital abortions, those opposed to abortion began to organise. So did those in favour.
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) led the opposition to abortion in the 1970s. Set up in 1970, SPUC was well-funded and had a large and active membership. The Catholic Church was SPUC’s most important source of members and money. In the 1970s SPUC also attracted a number of high-profile members, including Ruth Kirk, wife of Prime Minister Norman Kirk. It claimed that more than 30 members of Parliament were members.
Members of SPUC and their sympathisers regularly picketed abortion clinics (the first of which opened in Auckland in 1974), praying, singing and telling women going in not to kill their babies. Occasionally protesters would follow a woman home and tell her family that she had had an abortion.
Feeling about abortion ran so high that women with opposing views were sometimes unable to work together. There was a walk-out from the 1973 Women’s Convention when a resolution supporting abortion on demand was passed. Those opposed to abortion left the National Organisation for Women.
Opposition by some feminists to abortion caused furious debate within the women’s liberation movement. Anti-abortion feminists formed a group, Feminists for Life, which argued that women who became pregnant should be supported with maternity leave and childcare.
ALRANZ and WONAAC
The Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) was started in 1971. It had male and female members, and argued that abortion was a decision for a woman and her doctor. The more radical Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign (WONAAC) split from ALRANZ in 1973. A women-only group, it argued that abortion was a woman’s right and her decision alone.
There were also many short-lived groups, like the Auckland Anti-Hospitals Amendment Bill Committee, which supported the Auckland Medical Aid Centre, an abortion clinic, and the Backstreet Theatre group, which toured New Zealand in 1976.
REPEAL was formed after Parliament pushed the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act through in 1977. The act significantly restricted access to abortion. Opinion polls and submissions prior to the act being passed suggested it was out of step with public feeling on the issue. In three months REPEAL collected 319,000 signatures on a petition seeking repeal of the act. Parliamentary reluctance to reconsider what was a bitterly divisive issue meant the petition was not formally presented to the house.
Under the carpet
By the late 1970s some people just wanted an end to the controversy. At a 1978 National Party conference one of those attending pleaded: ‘We’ve all had a guts-full of the issue. Let’s get it under the carpet.’1
Parliament and churches
Some members of Parliament supported women’s right to abortion, notably Mary Batchelor, George Gair, Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan and Marilyn Waring. The Catholic Church was consistent in its strong opposition to abortion, but the stance of other churches shifted over time. In the 1970s the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches all took relatively liberal positions on abortion. This liberalisation was the source of ongoing dissension within these churches.