Book Review: Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th-Century New Zealand, by Margaret Sparrow

cv_rough_on_womenI had several people ask ‘Why would anyone volunteer to read this book?’, during the course of reading it. It took me longer than usual to read; after reading about two deaths from apparent poisoning, the last thing I wanted to move on to was the heading ‘Kate’s death – wielding a whalebone?’ Following the success of Abortion Then & Now: New Zealand abortion stories from 1940 to 1980, Margaret Sparrow has created a thorough and, at times, harrowing account of New Zealand abortions in the 1800s.

No leaf has been left unturned in this book, covering abortion laws and practice in the 19th century, through to real and bogus doctors, and even self-abortion. Using any and every resource available to her, Sparrow has created a book full of real women and their real stories. With a fleeting reference to Minnie Dean, Sparrow explores the limited choices available to women, and the extremes to which they went after having an unwanted child. These included child farming, adoption, and infanticide. The latter provides a wealth of examples of women charged with murdering their own child – these women were often sent to gaol or a lunatic asylum.

The concept of helping others comes through several times in the book. Whether they were doctors turned abortionists, a neighbour being friendly, or an employer helping their domestic servant, these people faced imprisonment, as did the woman, if caught. Chemists played an integral part in the process too, often as the first port of call to provide “patient-friendly abortion services.”

While this book covers 19th century New Zealand (as expected), Sparrow devotes a chapter to ‘Lessons from history’. She takes the time to look closely at the history of the legislation surrounding abortion, and is critical of the our current laws – “New Zealand’s current laws are no better than those of the 19th century in preventing or controlling abortions, and this is not surprising.” Reading this sentence didn’t surprise me either; during university I remember one article of a student couple’s attempt to get an abortion on the grounds of simply not being ready or wanting the child. Why should a woman be forced to lie when simply she doesn’t want a child? And for exceptional cases? The argument of ‘what is an exceptional case’ will erupt, of course. But as Sparrow reminds the reader: “That rape should not be a ground for abortion is a shameful infringement of human rights.”

So why did I elect to review this book? Because, quite simply, it’s an important issue, and I believe we don’t talk about it enough. If you’d like a hard-hitting, thought-provoking, and all together gripping read, I cannot recommend Rough on Women more. Sparrow’s critical stance and outspokenness in this field makes me smile and hope that we will have a serious change for the better in the foreseeable future.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th-Century New Zealand
by Margaret Sparrow
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739360