Condoms, cervical caps and diaphragms
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.
One’s a dud
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
The rhythm method
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.