Women’s rights are human rights: How women in Aotearoa New Zealand gained the right to choose

Women’s rights are human rights: How women in Aotearoa New Zealand gained the right to choose

On 24 June 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and decided that, despite almost fifty years of precedent, abortion is not a constitutional right. Te Papa curator Stephanie Gibson reflects on the long fight for safe, legal abortions in Aotearoa New Zealand using objects from the Te Papa collection.

I remember the first time I saw illegal abortion-inducing objects at the New Zealand Police Museum. My guide was Dame Margaret Sparrow who helped me understand what I was seeing. Sparrow is one of New Zealand’s leading sexual-health doctors and has long been an advocate for abortion law reform.

The most striking object was a funnel handmade from a glass bottle, which would have acted like a reservoir for fluid to be flushed into the uterus via a rubber tube or catheter attached to the bottle’s neck. Fluids could be soapy water or antiseptic solutions.

It was one of several instruments kept as criminal evidence from the 1930s when desperate women placed their health and lives in the hands of illegal back-street abortionists. Sparrow has documented many harrowing stories from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in her books on abortion history in Aotearoa New Zealand [1].

Te Papa doesn’t have such objects in its collections, but we do hold items from the long fight for women to gain control over their bodies from the 1970s on.

When I recorded an oral history with Dame Margaret in 2013, I asked about her experiences as an abortion provider during this period [2]. She recalled: “the 70s were one of the most interesting periods with the rise of feminism, and women beginning to take a lot more control of their lives … I got involved in abortion because people needed it”.

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The 1977 Abortion Act: fear and controversy

The controversial Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 was hard to implement, with doctors too nervous to carry out abortions for fear of breaking the law. Many women travelled to Australia for abortions.

Sparrow recalled that her “practice in the early days … was more like a travel agent than a doctor, helping ease people overseas. Tremendous amount of worry for them, getting the money, an excuse to get away, support, many of them had never travelled before, didn’t know what to do about getting currency … it was quite difficult”.

The Act was amended in 1978 to make it more workable. However, women still required the agreement of two certifying consultants that physical or mental health made abortion necessary, and abortion remained in the Crimes Act 1961.

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The 2020 Abortion Legislation Act: accessible choice

There are many different viewpoints on abortion, but the passing of the Abortion Legislation Act in 2020 removed abortion from the Crimes Act and made it a health matter. As Sparrow observed in 2013, “I think there’s no better person to make the decision than the woman herself”.

However, the recent overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States makes our struggles and reforms all the more potent and salutary. Our collections help us look at the past in order to understand the present and protect the future. We will continue to document the fight for women’s rights – both national concerns, and the impacts of international events.

A protest sign saying Women's rights are human rights
Full Time Feminist / Women’s Rights Are Human Rights placard, January 2017, New Zealand, by Adrianne Reid. Gift of Adrianne Reid, 2017. Te Papa (GH025105)


[1] Abortion then and now: New Zealand abortion stories from 1940 to 1980. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2010. Rough on women: Abortion in 19th-century New Zealand. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2014. Risking their lives: New Zealand abortion stories 1900-1939. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2017.

[2] Dame Margaret Sparrow, oral history recording by author, 2013. Te Papa (CA001174) 

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