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Playing with fire

The year 2018 marked 125 years of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa New Zealand. Twelve women were invited to write essays about objects in Te Papa Museum that reflected women’s experience. I was allocated Anolvar 21, the first contraceptive pill to be widely available in this country. After several false starts, I decided that the only way to address such a tiny yet powerful object was through personal reflection and experience. At the time of writing, the New Zealand Abortion Legislation Act 2020 had not been passed, something I have addressed in this account, slightly adapted from that original essay.

One day when I was a child my mother suggested I tidy the top of her dressing table. It was a plain piece of deal furniture crammed into the corner of the partitioned-off area of an old army hut that my parents called their bedroom. There wasn’t much on it: a lipstick, a box of Coty face powder, some hair clips, a few bills. I soon got bored so I opened the top drawer. Inside was a little rectangular box, and inside that were some capsules that looked like brown jelly. I can’t remember whether some were wrapped up, but certainly some were exposed. I took them to my mother and asked her if they were lollies. She snatched them from my hand and told me that I must never, never touch these again. It occurred to me later that, every now and then, a packet of about the same size would arrive in the mail and that the package wouldn’t be opened in my presence.

They were, of course, contraceptive pessaries, something I would later, briefly, use to control my own fertility. Indeed, my mother slid me a packet on the eve of my wedding. I found them disgusting. They may have been Rendell’s pessaries, although I think the packaging was the wrong colour. These definitely came in a black box.

All of this is by way of saying that my first encounters with reproductive control were tinged with the belief that something illicit was going on, something not talked about, and certainly not a topic for unmarried women. A prudishness was evolving in the late 1940s that burst into full bloom in the 1950s. It’s well documented that women developed new freedoms during the Second World War, as they managed independent lives, worked and brought up children alone while their husbands served in the forces. But when the men returned, the women once again put on their aprons. The kinder side of me thinks that this reversal was not so much authoritarianism, or not all of it, as a primal urge to regenerate the species. All the same, as we wartime children arrived in our teen years, it made for lives that were hidden from our parents, hypocritical double standards and, worse, a reiteration of them when we married. The status quo had to be maintained. Yet we teenagers, particularly those of us who frequented dance halls and the rock’n’roll scene, had glimpsed freedom.

When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a man with whom I had frequent pleasurable sex. We fell into bed whenever we could, usually without precautions. I remember the day he said to me, ‘We’re playing with fire, aren’t we?’ He meant, of course, that I might get pregnant. It was fine by him because he was planning to marry me anyway. He had already proposed.

Not long after, I fell out of love with him, and in love with someone else. But by that time, I was cautious. I had had a narrow escape and the consequences of such abandon had been brought home to me. Friends got married in a hurry, or in their parents’ front rooms with the minimum of witnesses. Young women disappeared for months at a time and when they returned they were instinctively shunned. Older couples, if a girl was lucky, appeared to have an impossibly late baby who grew up as her sibling. At least the child stayed in the family, but most did not. Not only was the unmarried mother avoided, but she wore a look of profound shock, as if she were in mourning. A close Catholic friend told me that she had sinned with the boy she really loved, and that they had broken up because the temptation to sin again was so great.

And then, of course, there was abortion. I didn’t know much about that or how women went about having one. They were illegal. The images described in an underground way suggested some sort of charnel house awash with blood, overseen by a manic baby murderer. Later, I came to understand that a doctor of my acquaintance, a gentle, civil man, had ‘helped out’ some girls in our town in the orderly surroundings of his general practice. But he was the exception rather than the rule, and perhaps his reputation suffered a little as a result. I knew about a girl who had died after visiting another abortionist. And a friend had a botched abortion that rendered her sterile for the rest of her life.

Terror, that’s what it was. We lived in terror. Our bodies were ready for sex, whether or not we had yet found the right mate but, back in the 1950s, the results could deliver shame and grief in equal measure, possible rejection by our parents, giving birth alone in cruel and unfeeling surroundings, the loss of children, bitterness and shame. Such outcomes have followed generations of women, not to mention those in search of their birth parents, and for many it’s still an unresolved issue.

My own out-of-wedlock pregnancy scare was, in the end, just that, but it hastened the date of my marriage, one that would endure for the next fifty-seven years. I got lucky. But we didn’t have two beans to rub together, as the saying goes, and we weren’t ready for a baby. The doctor frowned on hearing this. It would be best, he thought, if I were to get on with things. After all, I was twenty and healthy. He reluctantly fitted me for a diaphragm. It probably wouldn’t have made much difference; after I gave birth a couple of years later, I never conceived a lasting pregnancy again. Something had gone wrong, but I wasn’t to know it then. I was still seeking birth control when someone mentioned at a coffee morning that there was a pill to stop you from getting pregnant. ‘Coffee mornings’ were a euphemism for local mothers to get together while their children were at kindergarten or school and tell each other all about their lives.

We dressed up for these occasions in twinsets and pearl necklaces. Ideally, most of us wanted two children, although three would be fine if they were spaced enough for us to catch our breaths between pregnancies. It was the mid-1960s. We stayed home and looked after children, there was disapproval of women who worked outside the home (though I managed to break the mould somewhat by working inside the home), we admired the whiteness of one another’s napkins on the line, we preserved jam, and some slept with other women’s husbands. Fear still lurked beneath the surface of ordinary domestic lives.

Anyway, somebody in our group had read about the pill being distributed to women of means, in America. There was talk that it would soon be available in New Zealand. The end of the messy undignified birth control methods we used, or of our dependence on our partners to use condoms or practise the rhythm method, or withdrawal, was in sight. Every drop of sperm counted, as couples discovered too often to their dismay. If this seems unduly intimate, for the majority of women, the reproductive period of our lives, how we had our children, or not, is one of our central and most enduring narratives, the stories we tell and retell, whether it be to others or our secret selves.

I encountered the pill somewhere in the late 1960s, and Anovlar 21 is almost certainly what was prescribed for me. By then, in one manner or another, including adoption, I had become the mother of two children, and briefly of three. I had also suffered some devastating miscarriages and further attempts at pregnancy became unthinkable. I asked my doctor about the pill and it was prescribed. So what do I know about it now? I have found out that it was manufactured in Germany by Schering AG and there were twenty-one tablets in a blister pack, which came encased in foil, within a box. You took one every day for three weeks, and then there was a week without them, during which there would be some light bleeding (an added bonus for women with heavy periods). Later contraceptive pill packs offered twenty-eight-day packs, with seven-day placebos, so that women would take their pills on a regular basis and not forget to restart them.

The little green pill seemed like a miracle at first. It contained 4 milligrams of norethisterone acetate and 0.05 milligrams of ethinyl oestradiol. Well, that’s what I know now, though it wouldn’t have occurred to me to examine the details then. I believe it was a pretty heavy dose of hormones. Unfortunately, it didn’t agree with me. I felt nauseous all the time, with headaches, blurred vision and painfully swollen breasts. My reproductive life ended with a tubal ligation when I was in my early thirties. Yet for millions of women all over the world, life changed for the better. Women could plan their lives, think about occupations outside the home without fear of unplanned pregnancies, giving point and meaning to studying for professions; space their children in a manageable way; and, perhaps most of all, enjoy sex in a new and less inhibited way.

With an old woman’s eyes, I’m still slightly taken aback when I read regular columns about how to have the best sex, how often one might hope to have it, how the best orgasm can be achieved and so on. It’s not that I disapprove, it’s simply that the focus of sexual activity has moved from childbearing to pleasure and the conversation about it has altered. In the 1970s, when the women’s movement changed all our lives, and the pill offered greater sexual freedom to choose alternative partners, orgasm was the buzz, the anticipated outcome.

There was opposition to the pill’s availability, of course, and it was considered unethical to prescribe it – or any form of contraception – to unmarried women, the very people for whom unplanned pregnancies usually had the most devastating effects. Far right conservatives and fundamental church groups around the globe resisted it strongly. It’s interesting to look at the lyrics of songs about birth control pills: they are almost all in opposition, and penned by extremists. There was one song, however, that was recorded in 1972 by the American country and western singer Loretta Lynn. It was called ‘The Pill’. Lynn had had four children in her teen years, followed by another two. She hailed the pill, singing about her overused incubator, and the blessing the medication offered it. The song was a huge hit.

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Although my own childbearing years were over, I hadn’t forgotten the ones who still conceived in difficult circumstances. There were many couples for whom unprotected sex led to abortion, and there are still many today. Of course there are. Desire doesn’t always wait for a chemist’s shop to manifest itself. I knew that very well. When I left the provincial town where our children’s lives began, I was swept up in movements to demand access to abortion. There are heroes in the history of contraception in New Zealand. Among them was Ettie Rout, who campaigned fearlessly during the First World War for measures to prevent venereal disease among the Anzac troops. Sexually healthy men meant sexually healthy partners after they returned home. Subsequently, Rout wrote Safe Marriage, a contraceptive and prophylactic manual for women that was banned in New Zealand in 1923, but published in Britain and Australia. She also, in 1925, wrote Sex and Exercise, specifically for women. Some in New Zealand hailed her as a hero but she was widely reviled for her efforts. The age of hypocrisy was alive and well. Rout’s life has been eloquently documented by Jane Tolerton in Ettie Rout: New Zealand’s safer sex pioneer (2015).

My contemporary hero is Dr Dame Margaret Sparrow, who has devoted most of her life to women’s sexual and reproductive health. A feisty battler throughout her long medical career, she prescribed the pill for unmarried women long before it was acceptable. She was President of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) for more than thirty years. In the early 1970s, desperate young women would come to her seeking abortions, which she could not legally offer. But abortion had been legalised in Australia and so Sparrow devised a plan whereby women requiring abortions could be assisted to cross the Tasman. It was called SOS, which stood for Sisters Overseas Service. Tickets were booked for the women to go to Sydney in the early morning, have an abortion in a safe clinic and return the same night. It meant funding had to be found and accommodation for country women provided so that they could catch that early plane.

Our place was one of these ‘safe houses’ where women came to stay. These were harrowing times. They were not all young; there were middle-aged women, too, who already had large families and were experiencing financial hardship. Deciding to stay in a stranger’s home and travel alone for a medical procedure must have been an unspeakable ordeal. Contrary to some studies, which concluded that Māori women did not avail themselves of this service, I know that some did. More than one stayed with us.

I was in Parliament, as was Margaret Sparrow, when the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed in 1977, confirming abortion as a crime and sanctioning it only if two consultants agreed it was necessary for the mother’s mental or physical health. A group of us hung out that evening in the office of Marilyn Waring, the young National MP who had vigorously campaigned to legalise abortion and tried to persuade the government of which she was a member to support her. I have never forgotten the abuse that was hurled into the room where we sat. A clearly very drunk and red-faced MP stood at the door and shouted that we were a bunch of whores. Other swaying men appeared and berated us.

Sparrow has been quoted as saying that it was ‘one of the most despairing moments of her career’. She was so disappointed, she said. How could rational beings come to such a conclusion? My own memory of that night is that the conclusion was reached not by rational human beings, but rather by drunk, belligerent men who saw the proposed changes to the legislation as a threat to their domination over women.

However, the act that was passed, disagreeable as it was, opened a chink in their armour. An abortion through legal channels could be negotiated, although it demanded guile and good performances of mental impairment. Many terminations were performed by doctors of conscience, within the act’s prescription. Yet, forty years later, the legislation had not changed. People, mostly men, were still arguing about the moral right of the foetus to survive until a full-term birth, regardless of the welfare of the woman.

Pregnancy is the biggest alteration that can be made to a human body, and the consequences for a woman are far reaching. Yet in order to terminate the pregnancy, she had to endure a battery of tests that no other medical procedure required. New Zealand was out of step with much of the developed world. Restrictive abortion laws violate women’s human rights not only as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) but also based on agreements made at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. High on the agenda at those conferences was the issue of protection for women from unsafe abortion services.

It was ironic that here in New Zealand people could legally have elective surgery to various parts of their bodies, including operations that altered their appearance or their body shape, physically change their sex and decline medical interventions to save their lives (except in the case of children whose parents may have refused it on religious grounds), yet women and their doctors risked being criminalised if a woman chose to end an unplanned pregnancy.

I held fast to the belief that things would change, must change. New Zealand led the world in several areas of women’s emancipation, notably the 1893 change to the Electoral Act that gave all women the right to vote. I knew that women had not stopped fighting for justice and personal freedom.

When the Republic of Ireland reformed its abortion laws in 2018, I felt in my bones that the change would happen very soon. We had long heard of the repressive measures taken against unmarried mothers in Ireland, and how religion had dominated the discourse. But the people of Ireland had voted for change in a referendum and it was happening. Surely we, in enlightened New Zealand, would follow suit.

We had to wait until 2020 and a referendum of our own before it happened. Under a Labour government, the New Zealand Abortion Legislation Act was enacted in March of that year, decriminalising abortion and making abortion services available without restrictions to any woman who was not more than twenty weeks pregnant. Royal assent was given on 23 March and the following day the new law was in practice.

The face of the government had changed: it was younger, more diverse, more tolerant, more female. The rise of the left, with its inclusive mix of young men and women, convinces me that the old ideologies of the past are being left behind. I have hope in the young. They are as capable of making mistakes as we all were, but I think there are more with courage and conviction. I wrote a poem in praise of the young activist Malala Yousafzai, who was prepared to die for young women’s right to be educated.

The route we women

took when we were young

was always harder than we knew:

your difference is that you did …

we weren’t ready to die.

You were. Knowing the risks

you took bullets and lived.

She speaks for her generation. In the same way, I hope, women’s right to control their fertility will be understood not just as a personal freedom, although that matters too, but as a measure of social justice and equality, and improved relationships between the sexes.

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