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A Brief History of Abortion

The fight for women’s equality in New Zealand has long included the right to abortion.

Abortion has been a hotly contested issue by medical professionals, government officials, and the New Zealand public for over a hundred years. From the 1840s where abortion was outlawed entirely, to abortion anxiety post-WWI, to the ’70s where the abortion debate came to a head, leading to today.

1840 to 1950s: Abortion as an Illegal and Unsafe Practice

After the Treaty of Waitangi, Britain imposed its laws onto New Zealand, including the outlawing of abortion.[1] Once New Zealand became a self-governing nation, new legislation passed in 1867 made any actions taken to end a pregnancy illegal.[2] Under the law, any person who ended a pregnancy was criminally liable; women who sought an abortion were considered criminal accomplices.

New Zealand. Department of Health. New Zealand. Department of Health :Abortion! Except on medical grounds, abortion is a crime. Let the new life be born! For a healthier nation. Issued by the Dept of Health. 4a [1944]. [Ephemera of quarto size, concerning abortion in New Zealand, 1970- ]. Ref: Eph-B-ABORTION-1944-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22791090

If a woman ended her pregnancy deliberately, she was criminally responsible. In Britain, the penalty for this crime was death or transportation to the colonies. However, when there is demand, there is supply, and illegal abortions took place. While some people may have just wanted to help, many people were willing to take advantage of desperate women and profit off such an industry. Abortion was not the only way women would deal with an unwanted pregnancy or children. Particularly for the unmarried and poor, cases of selling off children known as ‘baby farming’ popped up in New Zealand; this practice was high in the 1880s.[3]

Starting in 1927, the Department of Health required hospitals to report the figures of women admitted due to septic abortions.[4] These figures are the baseline of estimated abortions taking place in New Zealand. An estimate from the 1927 Annual report from the Director-General of Health lists the number of hospitalisations in New Zealand from botched abortions as around 10,000.[5] The figure for total abortions is likely higher when including women who did not seek medical help and those who had successful abortions.

The reason abortions were unsafe at this time was due to the methods used. Abortions at the time were a pretty risky procedure. Abortions were carried out by inserting an instrument into the woman’s vaginal canal to end the pregnancy leading to a high risk of internal damage. Furthermore, they often were performed in un-sanitised environments by untrained professionals. This dangerous procedure, often performed with dirty instruments and unclean hands, caused the risk for infections to be high. Nevertheless, women were desperate enough to risk debilitating health complications and criminalisation to receive an abortion.

In the 1930s, limited abortion rights were allowed for women whose life was in danger due to their pregnancy. However, abortion was still widely disapproved of and doctors could still refuse to perform an abortion based on personal beliefs. This practice being known as conscientious objection. Even though the new law created minimal access to abortion, it still sparked panic from the ’20s to the ’30s. The end of the First World War brought about public concern about abortions. Abortions seemed to be debated by nearly everybody, from everyday people to doctors and newspapers to government officials. One radical argument against abortion suggested that abortion was why Europeans were losing racial dominance; this argument came from the eugenics movements of the time.[6]

CHEMIST HAYNE. Committed for Trial on Abortion Charge. (NZ Truth, 26 November 1921). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/5605377

The 1960s to 1990s: Division and Controversy to Decriminalisation

The 1960s brought about sexual liberation, opinions on sex, motherhood, and birth control began to shift. This shift did not just occur within the public sphere; it also created ripples in the medical world and would start making abortions easier to obtain.[7] The view that abortion should be accessible to everyone was becoming more commonplace. As a result, abortions increased from fewer than 70 in 1965 to over 300 in 1970.[8] Many Pro-choice and Anti-abortion groups were founded at this time and began to mobilise, creating a heated debate around abortion.

Even though public policy and attitudes towards abortion were shifting towards tolerance and acceptance of abortion, there were still those who felt that abortion needed to be prevented. The mildest reactions during this time included anti-abortionists picketing clinics and joining forces with conservative groups like Moral Rearmament, Family Rights Association, Society for the Protection of Community Standards (SPCS), and “Family 75.” A notable anti-abortion group was the SPUC, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which originated in Britain and spread to New Zealand.[9] The SPUC and its supporters would gather around abortion facilities and pray, sing, and demand women not to kill their babies. These protesters went as far as following women home and telling their families that they had received an abortion.

Members of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child presenting their “Right-to-life” petition to the Minister of Health, Thomas McGuigan, circa 26 August 1975. Shows the members of SPUC holding cardboard boxes of petition forms while the Minister stands alongside. From left to right: Marilyn Pryor, Dr John Bergin, Dr Diana Mason, and Des Dalgety.

Photograph taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer, probably in Parliament buildings in Wellington.

Members of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child presenting their Right-to-life petition to the Minister of Health, Thomas McGuigan. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-022814-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22746633

Another anti-abortion group was ‘Feminists for Life’. This group included women such as Connie Purdue. ‘Feminists for Life’ argued that pregnant women should be supported with maternity leave and childcare rather than receive abortion access.[10] Anti-abortionist feminists caused division within the burgeoning Women’s Liberation Movement in the ’70s.[11]  Feminists for life changed their name to ‘Women For Life’ in 1983, signalling their rejection of current feminist views and a broader division in the feminist movement.[12] While the anti-abortion movement grew, there was also a growing pro-choice movement.

One prominent pro-choice organisation included WONNAC, Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign WONNAC, formed in 1973, firmly believed that the control of a woman’s body and fertility would remain solely with the woman herself. The bulk of their supporters came from left-wing university students and the feminist movement at large. Another prominent group was  ALRANZ, the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand. ALARANZ, formed in 1971, worked as a pressure group to lobby for abortion law reform; ALRANZ remains active today.

An abortion controversy that hit the New Zealand public was about a new method of abortions: vacuum aspiration. Vacuum aspiration was the method of sucking out the womb’s contents. Vacuum aspiration was a very safe procedure due to the low rate of infection and damage to the uterus. Usually, when a safe alternative medical procedure is created, it is hailed as an outstanding achievement. However, for a medical procedure as controversial as abortion, the new vacuum method only added fuel to the fire.[13]

Pro-choice demonstrators with banners outside parliament on the first day of the Woolnough case. The banners read: Let women decide for themselves; Drop the charges; Clinics not choice by cash; Unjust trial oppressive law; Clinics not knitting needles. Dr Woolnough was facing charges of twelve counts of procuring unlawful abortions. The case was heard in Auckland.

Published in the Evening Post 28 April 1975 Photograph taken 28 April 1975 by an Evening Post photographer

Pro-choice demonstrators with banners outside parliament on the first day of the Woolnough case. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1975/1697/7-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23020620

During this time, the Auckland Medical Aid Centre (AMAC) opened in 1974. AMAC provided abortions for women in the first trimester of their pregnancy (1-14 weeks), making abortions easier to access. In September of 1974, a police raid was carried out on AMAC clinic, and Dr Jim Woolnough, one of the centre’s doctors, was prosecuted for ‘illegal abortions’.[14] Dr Jim Woolnough was charged with 12 counts of obtaining illegal abortions. Although Dr Jim Woolnough was later acquitted, a High Court appeal failed to overturn the not guilty verdict.

In 1975, Labour MP and SPUC member Gerard Wall’s ‘Hospital Amendment Act 1975’ passed into law. The ‘Hospital Amendment Act 1975’ limited legal abortion facilities available to hospitals.[15] The Act caused AMAC to close until it reopened in 1980 after buying a private hospital. Later, the Hospital Amendment Act was invalidated on technical grounds.[16] Bills such as the ‘Hospital Amendment Act 1975’ are still used by anti-abortion activists outside of New Zealand, notably in the USA, to limit abortion access. In 1976 AMAC was burned down in an arson attack, an extreme case of anti-abortion activism. The arson cost around $830,000 (inflated for modern terms) worth of damage.[17]

In response to the growing public discourse on abortion, parliament launched a Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion to review and form public policy on each of the mentioned issues. The commission recommended a legal framework for abortion. As a result, the Third National Government passed the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. The legal framework meant that a patient wishing to end a pregnancy had to see their doctor and another two medical consultants, who would look at the physical and mental grounds for carrying out an abortion; counselling was also available for women undertaking an abortion. In addition, the Crimes Act of 1961 was amended, allowing abortion within the 20 weeks gestation period. After the first 20 weeks, abortion was allowed to save the mother’s life and prevent serious and permanent harm to her mental and physical health. Although the Act was not without its critics, a feminist group known as Campaign to Oppose Repressive Abortion Laws (also known as CORAL) thought the Act was too restrictive on women’s reproductive rights.[18]

The 1980s-1990s : Activism after the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act

Through the 1980s, cases of anti-abortion and pro-choice activism continued. An extreme case of anti-abortion activism was ‘Operation Rescue New Zealand’ modelled after the American-based Randall Terry’s ‘Operation Rescue’. ‘Operation Rescue New Zealand’ used confrontational tactics such as picketing abortion clinics, harassing abortion patients, and distributing leaflets attacking abortion doctors as “baby killers.” More aggressive and dangerous tactics included breaking into buildings and operation theatres to disrupt abortions taking place. The anti-abortion movement denounced operation Rescue for its willingness to break the law, most notably by ‘Women for Life’ president Anetta Mortan.[19] SPUC’s leadership initially took the same route, starting as critical of Operation Rescue, but the leadership later relented and allowed its members to participate.[20] Operation Rescue had a massive Catholic component that included priests and clergy, and an estimated half of Operation Rescue’s supporters were also SPUC members. Operation New Zealand operated from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.

Brockie, Robert Ellison (Dr), 1932-. Brockie, Robert Ellison, 1932- :’Excuse me – is this the year 1481? And these auto-de-fe inquisitors presecuting the heretics, sinners, apostates & satanists?’ ‘No! 1989! And we’re here to harass desperate women and burn down the abortion clinic.’ ‘What’s the difference?’ National Business Review, 3 November 1989.. Various artists :[Collection of cartoon clippings, of works by Eric Heath, Nevile Lodge, Gordon Minhinnick, Neville Colvin, Les Gibbard. 1950-1980s].. Ref: A-311-4-025. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22671144

A large group of people in the garb of people of extreme views are gathered around the abortion clinic.

Person 1: ‘Excuse me – is this the year 1481? And these auto-de-fe inquisitors presecuting the heretics, sinners, apostates & satanists?’

Person 2: ‘No! 1989! And we’re here to harass desperate women and burn down the abortion clinic.’

Person 1:’What’s the difference?’

By Brockie, Robert Ellison

Pro-choice groups continued working on making abortion and sex education more accessible. Under the ‘Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977’, it was easier to obtain an abortion than ever before. As a result, abortion rights activists switched their attention to urging schools to have sex education and for young people to have easier access to contraceptives. After the abortion reforms of the ’70s and ’80s, ALRANZ began to lobby several hospital boards into establishing more abortion clinics and services across New Zealand.[21] From 1978 to 1986, the abortion section of the Crimes Act was amended to make abortion legal for cases of foetal abnormality, incest, age, and sexual violation.[22]The bulk of abortions in New Zealand happened at three locations: Epsom Day clinic in Auckland, Parkview Clinic in Wellington, and Lyndhurst Hospital in Christchurch.

Into the 21st Century and Beyond

As the 90s came around, the controversy surrounding abortion in the ’70s and ’80s began to dim, and anti-abortion activism began to slow.[23] There were still protests, but they had minimal effect. Although New Zealand law was still quite restrictive regarding abortion, abortion was generally available to women who needed it. When the 2000s arrived, anti-abortion activism started up again, and this time, they had an excellent new tool: the internet.[24]

Pro-abortion march in Wellington, in 1973. Shows a procession of demonstrators carrying banners. The sign in the foreground reads: “1893 vote for women, 1973 our right to abortion”. Others read: “Housewives are unpaid slaves”, “Abortion a woman’s right”, “Repeal all abortion laws”, and “Gay liberation”. A policeman walks on the right.

Photograph taken for the Evening Post newspaper by an unidentified photographer.

Pro-abortion march, Wellington. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-021373-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23120612

In the 2010s, a wave of pro-choice activists switched their focus on decriminalising abortion. Under the Crimes Act, abortion was still listed as a crime. This shift in focusing on decriminalisation was part of an international movement to make abortion legal for everyone. The New Zealand government introduced the Abortion Legislation Bill to parliament in 2019.[25] Enacted in 2020, the Bill removed abortion from the Crimes Act and made it a legal medical procedure that women were entitled to within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women could receive an abortion without going through the previous consultation process, and doctors were no longer allowed the right to Conscientious objection over abortion.[26] After 20 weeks, women would need to consult two medical professionals to receive an abortion. Groups such as ALRANZ still lobby for further legalisation of abortion.

The past 120 years of New Zealand history have witnessed massive changes in public opinion on abortion, from the 1840s where abortion was frowned upon to now where abortion is an accepted right. Events such as World War Two, the baby boom that followed, and the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s have slowly brought about public acceptance of abortion and women’s rights. Over New Zealand history, abortion has caused divisions within religion, politics, and even within feminism. Today, abortion remains one of the most divisive topics In New Zealand and around the world. However, even though abortion has caused massive division, the activists of today and past have successfully advocated for abortion legalisation and women’s autonomy.


Ariana Strawbridge
Ariana Strawbridge

I am aspiring fiction writer, avid gamer, voracious reader, middling beauty blogger and obsessive history buff. I got involved with Women’s History of New Zealand because it was writing and history in one, and there’s not many things better than being able to write and engage with history.

Recommended Further Reading:

Fighting to Choose, a history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand by Alison McCulloch


Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


Margaret Sparrow, “A BRIEF HISTORY OF ABORTION LAWS IN NEW ZEALAND”, ALRANZ, http://alranz.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Abortion-Timeline-2020.pdf, March 2020

Bibliography:

Margaret Sparrow, “A BRIEF HISTORY OF ABORTION LAWS IN NEW ZEALAND”, ALRANZ, http://alranz.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Abortion-Timeline-2020.pdf, March 2020


Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


McCulloch, Alison (2013). Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.


Hunton RB. Māori Abortion practices in pre and early European New Zealand. N Z Med J. 1977 28 December;86(602):567-70. PMID:273782.


Gluckman LK. Abortion in the nineteenth century Māori: a historical and ethnopsychiatric review. N Z Med J. 1981 10 June;93(685):384-6. PMID: 7019788.


https://nzhistory.govt.nz/-’Anti-Abortion-March-Wellington,’ ‘Stories of women’s activism.’


‘1977 – key events’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/the-1970s/1977, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-May-2018


Auckland womens health council “Herstory”, https://www.womenshealthcouncil.org.nz/Features/Herstory.html, (accessed 20 August 2021)


New Zealand Legislation – Crimes Act 196, Crimes Act 1867
https://nzhistory.govt.nz/women-together/womens-national-abortion-action-campaign
Department of Health. Annual Report of Director General of Health, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives.


ALRANZ “Our History”, http://alranz.org/past-and-present-tracy/, (accessed 20 August 2021)


Rosemary Du Plessis and Anne Scott, ‘Health advocacy and self-help – Women’s and men’s health organisations’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/28061/abortion-advocacy (accessed 1 December 2021)

Reference List:

[1] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


[2] Department of Health. Annual Report of Director General of Health, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives.


[3] Baby farmers’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/baby-farmers, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-Jun-2016


[4] https://teara.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1


[5] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


[6] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


[7]Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


[8] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Illegal but possible: 1840 to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2021)


[9] ‘Anti-abortion march in Wellington’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/anti-abortion-march-wellington, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012


[10] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-4 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[11] ‘Stories of women’s activism’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/suffrage125/three-waves-of-womens-activism, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Sep-2019


[12] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Abortion: 1990s to 21st century’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[13] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-4 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[14] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-4 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[15] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-4 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[16] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-4 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[17] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Controversy: 1974 to 1980s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/29025/arson-attack (accessed 2 September 2021)


[18] McCulloch, Alison (2013). Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press. pp.177-180.


[19] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Abortion: 1990s to 21st century’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[20] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Abortion: 1990s to 21st century’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[21] McCulloch, Alison (2013). Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.


[22] “Section 187 of Crimes Act 1961”. New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office


[23] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Abortion: 1990s to 21st century’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[24] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Abortion: 1990s to 21st century’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 11 November 2021)


[25] Megan Cook, ‘Abortion – Abortion: 1990s to 21st century’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/abortion/page-5 (accessed 26 August 2021)


[26] “Section 55 of Crimes Act 1867” New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office.

Image Bibliography:

Image 1:

Pro abortion demonstration, Wellington. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1976/2253/30A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23115081

Pro-abortion demonstration moving down Manners Street, Wellington. Photographed by an Evening Post staff photographer on the 23rd of June 1976.

This march was a protest against the National Government’s intention to “tidy up” the abortion issue. One of the fears relating to this was that the Government would close the Aotea private Hospital and thus restrict the oportunity for many women to have abortions. The march represented pro-abortion groups, and other women’s groups such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby.


Image 2:

A flier showing an illustration of a woman with her head resting on her arms. The first part of the text describes her situation: “She was told abortion was quite safe. The criminal abortionist who took her money said there was nothing to fear. But it wasn’t safe – it never is. And this girl has paid with her health, and is in danger of paying with her life”. There are statistics about the rate of abortion (13 induced abortions for every 100 births), and further text about the dangers to liver and kidneys, of sterility, sepsis, death. Abortion is described as a crime against the nation and against women themselves.

New Zealand. Department of Health. New Zealand. Department of Health :Abortion! Except on medical grounds, abortion is a crime. Let the new life be born! For a healthier nation. Issued by the Dept of Health. 4a [1944]. [Ephemera of quarto size, concerning abortion in New Zealand, 1970- ]. Ref: Eph-B-ABORTION-1944-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22791090


Image 3:

CHEMIST HAYNE. Committed for Trial on Abortion Charge. (NZ Truth, 26 November 1921). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/5605377


Image 4:

Members of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child presenting their “Right-to-life” petition to the Minister of Health, Thomas McGuigan, circa 26 August 1975. Shows the members of SPUC holding cardboard boxes of petition forms while the Minister stands alongside. From left to right: Marilyn Pryor, Dr John Bergin, Dr Diana Mason, and Des Dalgety. Photograph taken by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer, probably in Parliament buildings in Wellington.

Members of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child presenting their Right-to-life petition to the Minister of Health, Thomas McGuigan. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-022814-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22746633


Image 5:

Pro-choice demonstrators with banners outside parliament on the first day of the Woolnough case. The banners read: Let women decide for themselves; Drop the charges; Clinics not choice by cash; Unjust trial oppressive law; Clinics not knitting needles. Photograph taken 28 April 1975 by an Evening Post photographer.

Published in the Evening Post 28 April 1975

Source of descriptive information – Evening Post caption on back of file print

Pro-choice demonstrators with banners outside parliament on the first day of the Woolnough case. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1975/1697/7-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23020620


Image 6:

A large group of people in the garb of people of extreme views are gathered around the abortion clinic.

Brockie, Robert Ellison (Dr), 1932-. Brockie, Robert Ellison, 1932- :’Excuse me – is this the year 1481? And these auto-de-fe inquisitors presecuting the heretics, sinners, apostates & satanists?’ ‘No! 1989! And we’re here to harass desperate women and burn down the abortion clinic.’ ‘What’s the difference?’ National Business Review, 3 November 1989.. Various artists :[Collection of cartoon clippings, of works by Eric Heath, Nevile Lodge, Gordon Minhinnick, Neville Colvin, Les Gibbard. 1950-1980s].. Ref: A-311-4-025. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22671144


Image 7:


Pro-abortion demonstration moving down Manners Street, Wellington. Photographed by an Evening Post staff photographer on the 23rd of June 1976.

This march was a protest against the National Government’s intention to “tidy up” the abortion issue. One of the fears relating to this was that the Government would close the Aotea private Hospital and thus restrict the oportunity for many women to have abortions. The march represented pro-abortion groups, and other women’s groups such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

Pro-abortion march, Wellington. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-021373-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23120612

Published: December 2nd, 2021

Last modified: December 2nd, 2021

Cite as: Ariana Strawbridge, “A Brief History of Abortion”, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified December 2021, https://atomic-temporary-193744190.wpcomstaging.com/a-brief-history-of-abortion/

Categories
Tim Mcvicar

Connie Purdue – Activist and “Anti-Feminist”

Communist to Catholic, Labour to National – how Connie’s later perspectives contrasted years of advocacy for equal rights. “I learned very early not to put up with things … you can change things.”

Connie Purdue dedicated her life to agitating for social change. Her ideological positions shifted during her long life. Once an avowed communist, trade unionist and member of the Labour Party, she became a committed Catholic, National Party member, anti-abortion advocate and ‘anti-feminist.’[2] Throughout her life, the rights and duties of women were at the forefront of her activism. As a confrontational activist, she played a crucial and clarifying role in second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when movements championing social liberalisation conflicted with her conservative morality.

Constance Miriam Purdue (née Soljak) was born in 1912 and grew up in Northcote, Auckland. Her father, Peter Soljak, was a Croatian-born gum digger and restauranter while her mother, Miriam Soljak (née Cummings), was a notable leftist political activist and founding member of the New Zealand Family Planning Association. Purdue credited her interest in political activism to her mother and the challenges she faced being married to a Dalmatian during the First-World War.[3] Soljak lost her English citizenship because of her marriage and was forced to register as an enemy alien.[4] With her seventh child on the way, Soljak registered as an alien but made the constable witness she did so, ‘under protest.’ Soljak subsequently joined the Women’s Branch of the Labour Party and the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and had the law changed. Motivated by her mother’s political idealism, Purdue spent her life protesting injustices in New Zealand society.

At the age of five, she was hospitalised after she contracted tuberculosis in a knee joint from unpasteurised milk. Later in life, she noted that “most of life has been pain[ful]” due to the TB.[5] She spent some time in Auckland hospital on a charitable bed and recalled that “it was here that I learned my class early and also my difference”[6] She attended a convent school, where she received prizes for theology. She left formal schooling at the age of eleven.[7] Purdue was married at the age of twenty. There is little public information about her two marriages, although she described both as ‘unhappy marriages’ ending in divorce.[8] Purdue had three children.

At sixteen, she became the secretary of the Young Communist League, sold their books and distributed materials about sex education.[9] Her support for communist ideology eventually gave way to support of Social-Democratic ideas and reforming industrial relations. She joined the Labour Party and, in 1967, was appointed to the Social Welfare office at the Auckland Clerical Workers Union. Confronted with low engagement by female members, Purdue organised social activities such as a luncheon club, self-improvement classes, fashion parades, holiday motels and counselling services to make female members more proactive in the union.[10]

In the late 1960s, Purdue joined the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity as secretary and was effective in advancing the cause through campaigns.[11] Although the Government Service Equal Pay Act had passed in 1960, women still faced challenges, particularly in the private sector. As one woman, interviewed by Television New Zealand, stated at the time, “I don’t like the idea of equal pay for women. I feel that the male has to have something left, even if it’s just a little bit of extra money in his pay packet every week. I think we are going to rob him of his ego.”[12] Purdue championed the right of women to enter the workforce and that they should have the same pay and opportunities as men. In her own words, she sought to challenge the idea that there were ‘jobs for women and jobs for men.’[13] She hoped to change the attitudes of women about education and work. She wanted women to take the ‘long term view, that you are going to have a long working life, so that they see that as important and do become skilled.’[14] Purdue was influential in the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1972.

In 1969, she joined the women’s liberation movement at Auckland University and in 1971 assisted with Australian feminist Germaine Greer’s tour of New Zealand.[15] In 1972, Purdue and Sue Kedley formed the National Organisation of Women (NOW), with Purdue the first president of the Auckland Branch.[16] In 1972 and 1973, she led protests against gender segregation in ‘situation vacant’ advertisements and for women to be allowed to work as newsreaders on TV and radio.[17]

However, by the early 1970s, Purdue’s beliefs about abortion conflicted with emerging trends in second-wave feminism.  Despite NOW branches in Wellington and Christchurch being responsive to abortion reform, Purdue’s influence meant that NOW did not have an official policy and she encouraged pro-abortion members of NOW to join other organisations.[18] In 1974, Purdue was replaced as president. Subsequently, the Auckland Branch of NOW supported the free availability of contraception and the right to abortion in line with other branches in the country.  Many members of the Auckland Branch, encouraged by Purdue, resigned in protest.

By this point, Purdue’s increasingly religious and socially conservative views alienated her from most feminist and reform orientated political organisations. She was concerned that the State was becoming increasingly involved in the private affairs of the family. Purdue described abortion as a ‘dividing line’ and believed feminists had lost credibility supporting the sexual revolution of that period.[19] The researcher Robyn Reynolds described Purdue as an ‘anti-feminist’ but noted that if it was not for the abortion issue Purdue would be a staunch feminist supporter.[20]  

 In 1973, Purdue became an active member of the New Zealand branch of Feminists for Life which aligned agitation for women’s employment rights with a Catholic-flavoured overt anti-abortion stance.[21] In reaction to a pro-abortion march advertisement in Auckland University’s student magazine titled ’Ladies, Lose Ten Pounds Excess Flesh,’  Purdue wrote an open letter to the editor, suggesting the title be changed to ‘Fathers And Mothers, Lose By Poisoning, Burning or Dismemberment Your Full Time Daughter or Son.’[22]  

As President of Feminists for Life and Vice President of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, Purdue attended the first national gathering of the United Women’s Convention in 1973. She was a vocal and combative critic of section 15 of the proposed ‘Working Women’s Charter.’ Section 15 of the charter called for ‘all, financial, social and medical impediments to safe contraction, sterilisation and abortion to be removed as to allow the individual concerned to make their own decisions.’[23] Purdue believed that section 15 should be scrapped. as it was beyond the scope of the charter. [24] Purdue and 25 other anti-abortionists walked out of the convention.[25] Purdue subsequently submitted a ‘Mother’s petition’ and a ‘Concerned Citizen’ petition to Parliament in objection and to show support for ‘life and family.’

In 1974, she was elected to the Auckland Health Board and was the women’s representative for the Labour Party from 1974 to 1978. In 1975, Broadsheet ran an article by Christine Dann, attacking Purdue’s claim that she was a feminist.[26] In the same year, Purdue received an MBE for services to the public and the community.[27] Catholicism was increasingly important to Purdue as were traditional family structures and gender roles.[28] Her concern over the dangers to society by social practices against Christian values such as homosexuality, abortion, pornography and Māori cultural revitalisation shifted to safeguarding and/or protesting activities that would encourage the moral decline of society. She became celibate and advocated for the lifestyle.[29] In 1983, Feminists for Life changed its name to Women for Lifea signal of the organisation’s focus and rejection of then-current feminist and other social libratory perspectives. At odds with the pluralistic and socially liberal direction of the Labour Party, she left the party and became a member of the National Party, even as the National Party introduced anti-union legislation and the Employment Contract Act, which eroded worker rights.

In 1985, as a committee member of the Auckland Health Board at an employment appeal by Rina Rata (Ngatiwai, Ngapuhi) over institutional racism in employment policies, Purdue stated that she was not going to be intimidated by numbers when Rata’s extended whānau attended the proceedings. The proceedings were postponed.[30]  She also criticised Ngahuia te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tuhoe), who had once been a pallbearer at the mock funeral procession at Queen Albert Park in 1971 for attempting to align the lesbian rights movement with feminism, stating that she had put the women’s liberation movement back fifty years in doing so.[31] As a Spokesperson for ‘Women of Faith and Family’,  she described the 1990 screening of the choreographer Douglas Wright’s work Gloria on TVNZ as ‘the first step to pornography.’’[32]  

In 1993, she received the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal[33] and after a long period of limited mobility, died at the age of 87, on March the 16th, 2000. While Purdue’s later perspectives may be alienating to modern sensibilities, she remains an important figure in union activism for women’s employment rights.  She is a case study of the challenges faced by women with conservative religious values confronting broad social changes in the 1970s and beyond. 


Tim McVicar
Tim McVicar

Tim McVicar is a Te Tai Tokerau based content writer and researcher who has lived and worked in the Republic of Georgia, Sudan and Palestine. He holds an MA from Victoria University of Wellington and a Master of Teaching and Educational Leadership from the Mind lab…

Recommended Further Reading:

Else, Anne (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 98-99

Rowland, Robyn (ed) Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: London: Routledge Kegan Paul: 1984

 ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

Bibliography:

 ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

Else, Anne (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 98-99

Rowland, Robyn (ed) Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: London: Routledge Kegan Paul: 1984

Reference List:

[1] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[2] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 -692

[3], Page, Dorothy. ‘Soljak, Miriam Bridelia’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s36/soljak-miriam-bridelia (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[4] Page Dorothy. ‘Soljak, Miriam Bridelia’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s36/soljak-miriam-bridelia (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[5] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[6] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[7] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[8] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[9]  Hall, Lesley ‘The Personal is Also Political: The Relationship Between Political Activism and Family Life Among Members of the Communist Party of New Zealand’: Oral History in New Zealand: 17: 1-11

[10] Nolan, Melanie ‘Employment Organisations’ in Anne Else (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 202-203

[11] Nolan, Melanie ‘Employment Organisations’ in Anne Else (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 202-203

[12] TVNZ ‘Connie Purdue talks about the Setting up of NOW.’ NZ History Videos, date unspecified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFwZyy6e8o. (retrieved 5 July, 2021)

[13] TVNZ ‘Connie Purdue talks about the Setting up of NOW.’ NZ History Videos, date unspecified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFwZyy6e8o. (retrieved 5 July, 2021)

[14] TVNZ ‘Connie Purdue talks about the Setting up of NOW.’ NZ History Videos, date unspecified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFwZyy6e8o. (retrieved 5 July, 2021)

[15] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[16] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[17] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021), (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Nov-2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[18] Dalziel, Raewyn ‘National Organisation for Women 1972’, in Anne Else (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 98-99

[19] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 – 692

[20] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 -692

[21] New Zealand Herald. Kiwis who left their mark on the Nation 29/12/2000. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/kiwis-who-left-their-mark-on-the-nation/5JTFQ2JDEQ5G2LKE4ZB6MUJAGE/ (retrieved, 5 July 2021)

[22]  ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[23] Welsh, Robyn, ‘Working Women’s Charter’ in Macdonald, Charlotte (ed.) The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand, 1869–1993, Briget Williams Books, 1993 Wellington p 211-212

[24]  Welsh, Robyn, ‘Working Women’s Charter’ in Macdonald, Charlotte (ed.) The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand, 1869–1993, Briget Williams Books,1993  Wellington  p 211-212

[25] ‘Sue Kedgley’ New Zealand History  https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/sue-kedgley Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 5 Mar 2019 (retrieved 6 July, 2021)

[26] Dann, Christine. ‘Connie Purdue – Self Styled FeministBroadsheet, Auckland, Dec 1975; n 35:p 1

[27] “No. 46595”. The London Gazette (3rd supplement). 14 June 1975. p. 7407.

[28] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July, 2021)’

[29] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 -692

[30] Rata, Rina, ‘Hospital Board’  Broadsheet, Auckland Oct 1985; n 133: p 19

[31] Webb-Liddall, Alice ‘Five wāhine Māori protestors (who other Māori thought were a pain in the ass)’ The Spinoff. Aug 2019‘https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/02-08-2019/five-wahine-maori-protestors-who-other-maori-thought-were-a-pain-in-the-ass/ (retried 5 July 2021)

[32] Purdue, Connie quoted at https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/gloria-1990/quotes NZ On Screen (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[33] “The New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993 – register of recipients”. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 26 July 2018 (retrieved 5 July 2021).

Image Bibliography

Photo Source:  ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

Published: August 6th, 2021

Last modified: January 5th, 2022

Cite as: Tim McVicar, Connie Purdue – Activist and “Anti-Feminist”, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified January 2022, https://womenshistorynz.com/connie-purdue/