Celebrating NZ anti-abortion doctor dangerous

In eulogising a staunch anti-abortion doctor, the establishment of the Doris Gordon Memorial Trust perpetuates the stigma surrounding abortion, writes Dame Margaret Sparrow

The New Zealand medical establishment of 1900–1939 disapproved of abortion. Most doctors did not provide this service themselves, nor did they suggest that the woman see a local abortionist. When Dr George Jacobsen was accused of this in 1927, the Medical Council took action against him.

If there was a serious risk to the health of the woman, a therapeutic abortion could be carried out in a hospital, usually requiring the approval of more than one doctor. The law was vague as to what constituted a lawful abortion, and doctors developed their own guidelines for handling these cases.

Those doctors who did provide abortion services carried out their work discreetly, and unless something unfortunate occurred, they practised under the radar. Despite lapses by unscrupulous members of the profession, doctors were generally held in high regard. In contrast to the 19th century, few doctors were prosecuted for providing abortion services.

More is known of those doctors who campaigned against abortion. One of the most prominent anti-abortion doctors, Dr Doris Gordon, died on 9 July 1956, and in June 1961 the two organisations that had been most involved in her various campaigns, the Obstetrical and Gynaecological (O&G) Society and the National Council of Women (NCW), jointly established the Doris Gordon Memorial Trust and Fund for “the purpose of commemorating and furthering the works of the late Dr Doris Gordon” and “to promote, undertake, sponsor, cooperate in or otherwise further the study and/or the teaching and/or the practice of gynaecology and obstetrics in all their respective branches”.

Yes, Gordon did a great deal for the advancement of maternity services in New Zealand, and she must be remembered for that, but her legacy is flawed.

Reforms of the 1990s resulted in maternity care being transferred from general practitioners to midwives, and the O&G Society became inactive and was deregistered. The Doris Gordon Memorial Trust also became inactive, but the Trust Fund remained.

In July 2015, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) and NCW jointly formed a new Doris Gordon Memorial Trust, in order to access the funds for an annual Doris Gordon Memorial Lecture, alternating between meetings of the New Zealand section of RANZCOG and NCW.

The lecturer receives a Doris Gordon medal (actually a substantial bronze medallion) and an honorarium, to be used for furthering the health and wellbeing of women in New Zealand. The inaugural lecture, a eulogy to Doris, was delivered by Honorary Professor Ron Jones at the RANZCOG Scientific Meeting held in Wellington on October 2, 2015.

Yes, Doris did a great deal for the advancement of maternity services in New Zealand, and she must be remembered for that, but her legacy is flawed. While it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be faultless, and it is unfair to judge Gordon for holding views that were predominant in her time, nevertheless, in bestowing an honour and a medal, a higher-than-usual standard of critical appraisal is warranted.

This intelligent, energetic and capable woman, while advancing professional interests in one sphere – maternity – not only failed to understand the needs of ordinary women in a changing world, but opposed the very things that would have made their lives better – contraception and safe legal abortion.

Her opposition to birth control held back advances available to women in England, Europe and America. She publicly and vehemently opposed abortion, but in later years she was known to help women who, in her opinion, were deserving cases. She considered the emancipation of women as the leading cause of the increased number of abortions. In the 1937 book she co-authored, Gentlemen of the Jury, she wrote, “There is only one calling in which Modern Woman has failed – a calling in which poor despised grandmother succeeded – the task of keeping the cradles reasonably full.”

This intelligent, energetic and capable woman, while advancing professional interests in one sphere – maternity – not only failed to understand the needs of ordinary women in a changing world, but opposed the very things that would have made their lives better – contraception and safe legal abortion.

By eulogising Doris, RANZCOG and NCW are inviting acceptance and tolerance of her contributions, dismissing as negligible her shortcomings, and perpetuating the stigma surrounding abortion, in particular.

This is an edited extract from Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900–1939 by Margaret Sparrow (Victoria University Press), which is released on Thursday 14 September. Her previous books in the series are Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980 (VUP, 2010) and Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th-Century New Zealand (VUP, 2014).

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