Story: Contraception and sterilisation
There was no widely used, effective means of contraception until the pill arrived in the 1960s, heralding the sexual revolution. Family-planning activists struggled for many years to get their message across in the face of government opposition to sex education and birth control.
Full story by Jane Tolerton
Main image: Vasectomy doctor Tom Nixon
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Contraception, also known as birth control, is a deliberate effort to reduce the chance of a woman becoming pregnant.
The early Māori birth rate was high, and almost all women had children. Māori women drank an infusion made from the poroporo plant as a contraceptive – but it may not have worked.
Pākehā women also had a high birth rate. Some tried to avoid getting pregnant by carrying on breastfeeding (which can stop women getting pregnant) for a long time, douching after sex, or inserting a sponge soaked in vinegar before sex. Couples also practised withdrawal. However, none of these methods worked very well. The only sure way to avoid pregnancy was not to have sex at all.
Early 20th-century contraception
From 1900 people began using barrier methods of contraception, which prevented sperm from entering the uterus. Condoms, made of rubber, were worn by men; or caps or diaphragms were used by women.
In the 1930s it became popular to use the rhythm method, when a couple only have sex at times when the woman cannot get pregnant. Many Catholics used this method after the Pope told them to avoid other forms of contraception.
From 1961 the contraceptive pill was available in New Zealand. The pill gave women real control over their fertility, and many put off having children, went to university and had careers. However, it was difficult for unmarried women to get the pill until the 1970s.
Other methods included:
- injections of contraceptive drugs
- emergency contraception pills, which were taken after unprotected sex
- IUDs – devices inserted into the uterus
- sterilisation – surgery to stop people conceiving.
Until the late 20th century government regulations made it difficult for people to find out about contraception. From 1906 the Post Office could destroy mail that contained references to sexual organs or contraception. Many doctors opposed birth control, and would not tell their patients about it. People believed that young people would become immoral if they learned about sex and contraception. Until 1989 it was illegal even to talk about contraception with people under the age of 16.
New Zealand’s first group advocating birth control was set up in 1936, and became known as the New Zealand Family Planning Association in 1939. In 1940 the Post Office threatened to close the organisation’s post box because it had sent out material about contraception. Some doctors and the Health Department also disapproved of its work. Family planning clinics were set up in the 1950s. In the 2000s Family Planning still runs contraception and sexual-health clinics, and sex-education programmes.