Women’s health was the focus of quiet activism in the 1950s and 1960s, when access to contraception and less medicalised birth were both sought. More vigorous campaigning and controversy became frequent from the 1970s on. Some issues – abortion, cervical cancer, contraception, violence against women – became highly politicised.
Authoritarian medical management of childbirth had become standard in New Zealand. In 1952 a group of Wellington parents (most of them women) started the first Parents Centre. Parents Centres were set up nationally, and focused on the birth experience and the bonding of mother and child after birth.
Some Parents Centre innovations became standard, notably hospital ‘rooming in’ – baby staying in the same room as mother, rather than in a nursery – and allowing fathers to be present during a baby’s birth.
Feminist health activism
Women’s health activism flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. Close attention was paid to a range of issues, including women’s interactions with doctors, contraception, abortion, birth, violence, and breast and cervical cancer. Fundamental to this activism was the belief that women needed to understand their bodies and control their own health.
Pointing out that most medical research was done on men (or male animals), feminist health activists argued that the result was a lack of knowledge of the effects of hormonal fluctuations, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause on disease or drug effectiveness. Differences in the way a disease might show itself in men and women were not well known. Some conditions specific to women, including endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, were not understood.
Health centres and groups
Women’s health centres and groups were set up around New Zealand. Many were at first met with hostility, and did not last long. Others remained active in the 2000s, notably the Women’s Health Action Trust and the Auckland Women’s Health Council.
Open and shut
The first Wellington women’s health centre had been open for two days when the city council evicted it from rooms in a community centre. Medical groups had complained and support previously promised was withdrawn without discussion or notice. The women were dismayed and angry, but had no choice except to leave.
Cervical cancer became the best-known of the feminist health campaigns. Health campaigners Phillida Bunkle and Sandra Coney discovered that more than 80 women with abnormal cervical smears had been part of an experimental study at National Women’s Hospital in Auckland.
The study involved the repeated checking of women for signs of carcinoma in situ (cancerous cells). If found, treatment was withheld while regular checks were continued. Some of these women went on to develop cervical cancer, and some died as a result.
The experiment became the focus of a commission of inquiry, known as the Cartwright Inquiry, which reported in 1988. In response to the inquiry’s findings, the government set up the position of Health and Disability Commissioner, ethical procedures became an integral part of setting up medical studies throughout New Zealand, and a cervical-screening programme began in 1989.
Activism also prompted government health agencies to pay closer attention to women’s health issues. This interest in women’s health did not survive the 1990s, when women’s health again became absorbed into family and reproductive health. The good health of socio-economically advantaged women meant that women’s health became less of a focus.