Abortion law reform: What would Anna Patterson Stout say?


Frances Townsend


The National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCWNZ) passed a remit at its 2014 September Conference to review the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 "with a view to simplifying [the abortion law] and ensuring a women's right to choose." This remit was passed by a large majority.

NCWNZ is a federation made up of very different groups of women: radicals, conservatives, feminists, church groups, political parties, rural women, urban women, ethnic groups, business women, philosophers and philanthropists. It is a well-regarded umbrella organisation whose members include nationally organised societies of women, and NCWNZ branches. Individual members belong to the Branches together with representatives of these organisations. Consequently, the NCWNZ is a finely meshed net for catching the opinions of women.

NCWNZ has existed since 1896 to work for the benefit of women, families and community at local, national and international level. It researches the needs of women and the family, engages in education for women that helps to advance women, collects and redistributes information of service to the community. It maintains links with international councils. As an organisation NCWNZ is non-political and is not organised for the furtherance of any one interest.

At the very first meeting of NCWNZ in 1896, the gathered women discussed the many forms of violence against women, poor working conditions and the need for financial equity. The fact that in 2015 we are still discussing those things is an indication of just how long social change takes. But the pressure needs to be kept on. NCWNZ does that and over the years women have made steady gains.

One of the most effective ways NCWNZ goes about its task is to make submissions on every Bill that goes through Parliament which has a major impact on women, families and communities. The law makers appreciate this input from an organisation representative of a very wide and diverse segment of half the population. Some of the issues, like the Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act, are controversial, not least among the membership.

Lady Anna Patterson Stout (1858 – 1931) was a foundation member of NCWNZ, the most well-known of the founders after Kate Sheppard. She lived through momentous times that saw the gold rushes, phenomenal immigration, building the railways throughout the land, opening up the country to wool, wheat and frozen meat exports, the Boer War, becoming a Dominion instead of a colony, the First World War, patriotism, the first cars, and the Long Depression throughout the 1880s and much of the 1890s. The Long Depression saw much poverty, soup kitchens, drunkenness, and prostitution. All of these things defined Lady Anna Stout's life.

Anna's parents were well off. They were freethinkers and members of the temperance movement. Freethinking is a philosophy, its adherents holding that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" . Anna was greatly influenced by the principal of the Girls Provincial School in Dunedin which she attended from age 12. There she was taught womanly propriety, duty and service. She was brought up to believe in women's rights. At the age of 18 she married another freethinker, Robert Stout, a barrister and Member of Parliament who was knighted in 1886, at which point she became Lady Anna. From this position of eminence she worked for women, children and communities through a number of organisations: In 1885 she became a foundation member of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement and in 1892 she was elected president of the Women's Franchise League in Dunedin. In 1895 she founded the Southern Cross Society. This Society aimed to educate women politically, promote their independence and equality and improve the living conditions of women who worked for wages.

In 1896 she attended the convention in Christchurch as a representative of the Southern Cross Society and became a Vice-president of the newly created National Council of Women. She was a strong advocate of the Council representing all women's organisations. In 1897, she protested: "If the industrial, educational and philanthropic societies are not to be represented ... the Council could not be considered either national or representative".

Later she helped found the NZ Society for the Protection of Women and Children and the Plunket Society. In the post-war period Anna fought for women's rights to a full education not just domestic training. She fought for women to be treated in the same way as men were, in the matter of venereal disease and prostitution. Professor Raewyn Dalziel who wrote Anna's biography for the Dictionary of NZ Biography said of her that she had led a life at the cutting edge of change in women's public role. She was strategically placed to negotiate for women's advancement and this she had done publicly and privately.

What can we who are living in the 21st century learn from Lady Anna Stout; this feminist, fighter for justice, women's rights and equality, philanthropist and a woman deeply concerned about women's health and welfare? More specifically, what might be her contribution to the current debate about the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act?

Consider what she might say about these three hypothetical yet credible modern young women: One young woman believes in her autonomy over her own body especially in the matter of having unwanted children. The second young woman is a very sad woman. She suffers from depression and even contemplates suicide as a way out of her unhappiness. There are a number of reasons for her depression, but one that eats away at her is that she had an abortion. The third young woman is also a very sad woman. She cannot have children. She wants to adopt a child, if there were children to adopt, but there are few and the way to them is slow and difficult.

What would Lady Anna Stout say? With her freethinking background and as a feminist she would have sympathy and compassion for all three women. But she would want to see the evidence. First, she would want to study all the research on the consequences of abortion, especially the New Zealand based, internationally recognised, and long term research of Professor Fergusson and his team. In addition, she would want to study all the research that challenged his findings that there is a link between abortion and mental ill-health.

She would want to ask many questions such as: How is abortion actually criminalised under the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, as some claim? Would easier abortion lead to more abortions? What has happened overseas where abortion is not curtailed by law? Would more abortions, if that happened, lead to more women suffering depression and suicidal thoughts? And would easier abortion lead to even fewer babies for adoption? Are there any changes that could be made to the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act that would lead to more babies for adoption? With her experience of the Liquor Industry's strong opposition to the Women's Christian Temperance movement, she would certainly want to look carefully at the abortion industry itself to see what pressures, commercial or otherwise, operate on women and groups like NCWNZ. Lady Anna Stout was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects and nor should we be afraid. She would want every aspect of women's health thoroughly researched, studied and discussed. She would argue for gender equality but, as a woman of integrity, she would also argue strongly for equality among all women within the NCWNZ family.

It is clear that there is a huge empty space opening up for those whose focus is on the rights of the unborn and the needs of pregnant women. It is important to keep an open mind to all evidence including research that shows the damaging effects of abortion on women. Whatever side of the debate we are on, we need to tackle the abortion issue with love not aggression. There is an urgent need for support for pregnant women who feel unable to cope with their pregnancy, for women who are childless and who are desperate to adopt, and for women whose babies die in childbirth. For the childless, The Sullivan Birth Certificate Act of 2014 is a breakthrough in legislation since it allows a birth mother and an adopting mother to both sign the birth certificate.

Members of the medical profession who carry out research in New Zealand, quite rightly in my view, do not want to be seen as allies of either side. We need objective research and the job of researchers is to get the results, to have their work peer-reviewed and make them known in reputable journals. Lady Anna Stout, who played a critical role in the founding of NCWNZ, believed in the importance of research evidence on which to base action in the support of women.

She was also a woman of great compassion and this is what must guide those on both sides of the issue.

NCWNZ has a ceremonial Rosebowl which was presented by a member in honour of her father, Sir John Clifton Webb, a distinguished politician and diplomat in the post-WWII period. This article was based on a presentation given by the author to the NCWNZ National Conference in October 2014 as part of the Rosebowl ceremony.

Dr Frances Townsend is a retired lecturer in teacher education and educational leadership at Auckland College of Education. She is a member of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, Papakura Franklin Branch and Auckland Catholic Women's League, Diocesan Council.