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Wairarapa’s blackout on abortions

Between 1840 and the 1950s, abortions were illegal in New Zealand – they were commonly referred to as “back street abortions”.

A government inquiry in 1937 found that at least one pregnancy in five ended in abortion and that the majority of women dying from illegal abortions were married with four or more children.

In the late 1930s, the right for a woman to receive an abortion, if her life was in danger, was extended by a court judgment.

However, abortion was still strongly disapproved of, and many doctors refused to perform the procedure.

The New Zealand Family Planning Association eventually opened its first abortion clinic in 1974, but soon after it’s opening, it was raided by police and forced to close.

The association had been operating since 1936, but battled public sentiment that contraception was obscene.

Its first contraception clinic opened in Lower Hutt in 1951, and others followed in Auckland.

When the contraceptive pill became available 10 years later, married women had a reliable form of contraception.

Many women who lived through the era remember the abortion debate flaring up in New Zealand in the 1970s.

Felicity Goodyear-Smith was a general practitioner and certified consultant for abortions during the 1980s, initially practising in Freeman’s Bay, Auckland. She assessed women who had been seeking an abortion for almost 40 years.

She recently published her book, ‘From Crime to Care: The History of Abortion in Aotearoa New Zealand’.

Family Planning said large numbers of women flocked to Australia for abortions. In New Zealand, abortion could only be considered at less than 20 weeks.

Goodyear-Smith said some of those women had been suicidal.

The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act came into law in 1977, allowing health practitioners to provide abortion services to women who were less than 20 weeks pregnant.

After a pregnancy reached 20 weeks, a woman would only be allowed an abortion if the pregnancy put her health, mental health, or wellbeing at risk.

The procedure would need to be signed off by another doctor.

Goodyear-Smith said the law had been aimed at destroying Aotearoa’s only abortion clinic, Auckland Medical Aid Centre, which had been set up by Rex Hunton.

In February 1983, the abortion debate hit home for Wairarapa women when then Wairarapa District Health Board [DHB] medical superintendent Dr Leo Buchanan voiced his opposition to abortion.

During his five-year tenure, Buchanan refused to renew the abortion licence and planned to invoke conscientious objection as the debate made its way out of the board room and into the community.

As a staunch Catholic, Buchanan had been an executive member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children before joining the DHB.

His opposition to abortion raged within the DHB, resulting in his eventual refusal to sign an abortion licence for the board in 1987.

This forced the board to seek a discretionary judgement from the High Court on whether Buchanan could avoid holding a licence under the conscientious objections provision of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977.

The licence was renewed in Buchanan’s absence.

Buchanan refused to sign the newly-acquired licence, and not a single abortion was performed between April and July 1987.

The Times-Age reported women leaving the region to have an abortion procedure.

Goodyear-Smith said that women would travel from Wairarapa and other parts of New Zealand to the three main centres to a clinic to have an abortion, but most went to Auckland.

“It’s quite disruptive; just to have an abortion, they’d have to travel the length of the country.”

She said when there were financial barriers to travel, women would end up having babies when they would have preferred to have an abortion.

Goodyear-Smith said DHB’s would often pay for women to travel to a clinic.

It was unclear if Wairarapa DHB had funded travel while the hospital did not have a license.

Buchanan issued his resignation in July 1987, earlier that week, the board had just decided to appeal to High Court.

Support for Buchanan’s stance came from members of the public and St Patrick’s Church Parish.

In an excerpt from the book Helping Hands – The History of Wairarapa Health Services, then-board member Trish Taylor said she was vilified by the Catholic weekly magazine, ‘The Tablet’, for standing her ground.

“Dr Buchanan refused as a Catholic to seek a new licence, and the controversy attracted major media attention and polarised the community.”

The book reported a special mass was held at St Patrick’s Church in Masterton and a public meeting occurred at Chanel College in support of Dr Buchanan’s stance.

Quoted in The Tablet, Taylor explained she was a Catholic and personally did not support abortion but that “the matter was not about whether you support abortion or not, it’s about whether or not to provide a legal service in a public hospital”.

“It is a matter of principle to have an abortion licence.”

Buchanan said in his resignation announcement that the catalyst for his departure had been his “exercising honest beliefs” about his responsibilities as holder of the hospital’s abortion licence.

The next part of this series will look at sexual health services available today.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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