Abortion then and now: New Zealand Abortion
Istar Limited, New Zealand
Based on a social history book by Dame Margaret Sparrow
available from Victoria University Press www.victoria.ac.nz/vup/.
In the 1940s deaths from septic termination of pregnancy
(TOP) were an ever-present fear.
In the 1950s, due to antibiotics, deaths were less common but
there was a network of clandestine abortionists.
In the 1960s the contraceptive pill and feminism brought
changes for women but New Zealand and Australia did not follow
the 1967 law changes introduced in the UK. Those who could
afford it went overseas.
In the 1970s TOP was catapulted into the public arena with
protest and debate bringing signiﬁcant law changes in 1977–78.
Finally doctors took responsibility for safe TOP services.
From the years when illegal TOP was usually the only option
for women, the author has collected personal stories from some
70 contributors, women who had a TOP, doctors, police and
activists. Some of the stories relate to women from New Zealand
struggling with accessing abortion while living in the UK.
The themes are universal and remind us that these injustices
must never return.
Abortion then & now
Margaret Sparrow MD, New Zealand
Abortion has been present throughout history and in all cultures. This historical perspective
is to remind us of what has happened in the past, so that we have a better understanding
of the present which will assist us as we develop good practice guidelines for the future. In
the past women frequently risked their health, their fertility and their lives with unsafe
procedures and in many parts of the world they still do. The use of traditional methods has
been common but many treatments for self-abortion are unsafe or ineffective. Whenever
safe medical services are unavailable illegal abortionists will flourish. Poor women are the
most vulnerable often paying with their lives. In many countries including my own, New
Zealand, abortion is still regarded as a crime rather than as a medical procedure or as a
matter of personal human freedom. Laws in many countries have been a barrier to change
but changes have occurred through public and professional awareness, protest activity,
commissions, petitions, court cases, feminism and by advances in medical technology.
Now, in developed countries where abortion is legal, it is the most common gynaecological
operation and one of the safest.
How to introduce medical abortion in a country, the example of NZ
Margaret Sparrow; MD, New Zealand
In 1999 New Zealand abortion providers considered that New Zealand women should be
offered the choice of medical abortion. As no pharmaceutical firm was interested in
importing mifepristone, five doctors formed a not-for-profit company Istar Ltd. The name is
derived from Ishtar or Istar, an ancient Babylonian goddess of love, fertility and war.
In May 2000 Istar signed an agreement with the French manufacturer, Exelgyn and
applied to Medsafe, Ministry of Health for approval of a new prescription medicine.
On August 30 2001 Mifegyne 200mg was approved by the Minister of Health Hon Annette
King and gazetted for use in New Zealand for abortion only.
To comply with the law all abortions in New Zealand must be “performed” in a licensed
institution. For fear of prosecution most clinics except the one at Wellington Hospital,
chose not to use Mifegyne. Second trimester abortions in hospitals were not affected and
the first medical abortion using Mifegyne was carried out in Wellington Hospital in October
In April 2003 Mr Justice Durie in the High Court Wellington ruled that a woman must take
both sets of pills (Mifegyne, followed 48 hours later by prostaglandin) in a licensed
institution, but she does not need to stay on licensed premises between taking the pills,
nor does she need to stay on licensed premises until the abortion is complete. Clinics are
now able to perform early abortions within these limits.
Our experience demonstrates that with persistence, obstacles can be overcome.