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.

Dessert storm

Until last week, I’d only experienced the best of Wellington’s weather.

Arriving from Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch, Dunedin, – wherever I was living at the time – our capital always seemed bathed in sunshine.

And so it was when I arrived a fortnight ago, just in time to check the pulse of an allegedly dying city. Just in time to catch the last of the good weather before the storm set in.

Ah, but the next morning was frost-free, so I wore sandals to work.
(Indeed if Wellington was dead, I’d get to work five minutes earlier without the Willis Street peak-hour foot-traffic).

Activities, sites, people and places quickly filled my schedule. Wellington is a dessert I can never quite finish. As a “ghost-town” student, I found the central city overwhelmingly busy. When I wasn’t in the newsroom, I walked, everywhere, as much as possible.

Checking the pulse, you see.

On sunny afternoons I rested near the water, writing and completing assignments with ease thanks to the CBD wireless. The frenetic pace of the city centre was lulled by the presence of its harbour. The expanse of water provided breathing space and beautiful views. No doubt it’s linked to the sense of hope that pervades the city.

When it got colder, I retreated to the public library or – if there was any money in my wallet – to a nearby café.

Cafés are a delicious insight into any city’s artsy scene, don’t you think?
Wellington has more cafés per capita than any other city in New Zealand (and apparently even more than New York) – which to me was a sign of excellent health. Anyone who believes Wellington is dead can’t have been to Cuba Street on a Sunday; they’d be eating their words for brunch as they waited for a table at Floriditas.

Te Papa’s Warhol exhibition revealed that not only is Wellington alive, but she’s procreating. Audacious wee tykes dashed around the installations; their parents carefree as they admired the amphetamine-inspired exhibits. Regardless, Wellington’s capacity for culture and generally cool stuff is uplifting. Public sculptures adorn footpaths, the gardens are extensive, and even walkways (think City to Sea) are designed with creativity.

Wellingtonians themselves are living (living!) works of art in their bold attire. Designer, disco, dancer, grunge. Vintage hats, new hair. Business suits, preppy loafers, large glasses, colourful socks. Wellington’s got it all, and more.

But the streets quietened as clouds gathered and grew. The temperature dropped and wind boxed my ears as the storm began.

“If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best,” said Wellington.

Roads turned into puddles, thud, thud, thud became splash, slip, thud, but still I could feel the pulse of a living and kicking city beneath my cold, wet feet.

Oh, the irony – I forgot my wellies.




Wellington evening lights
Wellington: evening lights