Cause of death: Abortion

AUTHOR: Dame Margaret Sparrow  Source: The Wellingtonian
AUTHOR: Dame Margaret Sparrow
Source: The Wellingtonian

It was 1868 when Maria Hackett, 20, suffered a toxic overdose after aborting her own pregnancy.

Overcome with shame upon discovering she was pregnant, she instructed her lover, Christchurch shoemaker Thomas Yates, to source a concoction of pills “for female use”.

An inquest attributed her death to abortion “caused by certain noxious drugs, wilfully and feloniously procured for and administered to the said Maria Hackett by Thomas Yates”.

It is the earliest mention of abortion in New Zealand criminal history.

Little is known about the tragic lives of Kiwi women who had abortions in the 19th century; it was rarely written about or even mentioned among family and friends.

At a time when contraception was frowned upon by the medical profession, women obtained abortions by whatever means they could, despite dangers of poisoning, haemorrhage, and infection, and abortionists did their work despite the threat of long prison sentences.

Dame Margaret Sparrow, author of Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th Century New Zealand, spoke on the topic at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage on April 1. One of the first medical practitioners in New Zealand to offer the emergency contraceptive pill, Sparrow is a world-renowned expert in her field, and was knighted in 2002.

You can listen to the full talk online.

Using excerpts from coroners’ reports, newspaper accounts, and court records, her book pieces together previously untold stories of women who underwent abortions.

ROUGH ON WOMEN:  A prequel to Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand abortion stories from 1940 to 1980 Source:
ROUGH ON WOMEN: A prequel to Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand abortion stories from 1940 to 1980 Source:

“People didn’t tend to discuss abortions in journals or letters,” Sparrow said. “There was no support, certainly no social support. It led to many infanticides and suicides.”

In 1866, New Zealand adopted the English law which made it an offence to procure an abortion. The penalties ranged from three years to life imprisonment.

“It wasn’t a matter of foetus rights in the 19th century, but more about public shame,” she said.

Chemists had a “very limited” range of contraceptive methods; most did not stock contraceptive rubber goods. Women who fell pregnant out of wedlock, and mothers with too many children to handle, would turn to old wives’ tales to self-abort.

Household items most commonly used were matchheads and rat poisons, and a popular plant remedy involved berries from the Te Mahoe tree (from which Wellington’s pregnancy termination and counselling service got its name).

Although they offered little to prevent pregnancy, chemists did stock pills — the likes of which killed Hackett and her unborn child — designed to “restore regularity” and “remove obstructions”. When these failed, instruments were used: Bone crochet hooks, syringes, curettes. Physical exercise was another method — riding horses, running, skipping with a rope, jumping from heights…

“Doctors had an advantage over non-medical abortionists in that they had ready access to tools, and an excuse for owning them.” Many regarded their roles as necessary medical service. “The law was harsh, but largely unenforceable.”

Notorious abortionists were repeatedly charged, but it was difficult to corroborate evidence — especially if a woman had visited alone — and often the verdict was “not guilty”.

Not so for Wellingtonian John Henry Brown, who was handed the most severe sentence ever for abortion in New Zealand: 18 years behind bars, with hard labour.

The title of Sparrow’s book was taken from a story about a young farm worker who fell pregnant; she committed suicide using a common household poison called “Rough on Rats”.

After qualifying as a doctor in the 1960s, Sparrow became the president of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRANZ) in 1975, and has held the position twice.

Currently abortion is a criminal offence in New Zealand, but it is lawful if two doctors certify that a woman’s mental health will suffer. Having experienced an illegal abortion in the 1950s, Sparrow believed it should not be a criminal matter, and that women should be able to choose for themselves.