Women's National Abortion Action Campaign

1973 –

Women's National Abortion Action Campaign

1973 –

Theme: Health

This essay written by Beryl Hughes was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Alison McCulloch in 2018.

1973 – 1993

The Women's National Abortion Action Campaign (WONAAC) believed that the control of a woman's fertility must lie solely with her, and that services providing contraception and abortion had to be established to achieve this. Strongly feminist, with a broad-based concern for women, WONAAC asserted that 'fertility control, childcare and economic independence are key issues for women'. [1]

The Crimes Act 1961 restated the position that abortion was unlawful except to preserve the life of the mother. By 1970 it had become clear that a large discrepancy existed between the severe law on abortion and the more liberal practices of a number of doctors, who were supported by a considerable body of public opinion. Moreover, the liberalisation of abortion law in the United Kingdom (1967), South Australia (1969), and New South Wales and Victoria (1970) had encouraged the many New Zealanders who wanted the law liberalised here.

A number of pressure groups for change appeared, including the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) in 1971, and WONAAC, which was launched at the Women's National Abortion Action Conference in Wellington in July 1973. Kay Goodger, who became WONAAC's national coordinator, reported in 1974 that '. . . we put the principle of women's right to choose first, and it is this approach that opponents of abortion find hardest to counter'. [2]

In the early years, WONAAC members were drawn from university students and left-wing groups, particularly the Socialist Action League (SAL), as well as from the feminist movement at large; later, students and SAL were less prominent. WONAAC members' claim that abortion was primarily a women's issue was hard at first for some male supporters to accept. Men had been active in the campaign, particularly in demonstrations and defending clinics; but WONAAC successfully insisted that women retain control of the organisation and the decision-making.

WONAAC attracted women from a wide range of income groups, occupations and lifestyles. It was funded by annual subscriptions and by donations. Initially, the Wellington-based WONAAC hoped to build a national organisation; but since most pro-choice women's groups wanted local autonomy, it adopted a co-ordinating role, with a flexible organisation and informal style.

Abortion march

Many of the marchers in this abortion-rights crowd, at Parliament in May 1977, were members of the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign. Alexander Turnbull Library, Dominion Post Collection (PAColl-7327). Ref: EP-1977-1852

Safe, legal abortion became more difficult to obtain in the 1970s. The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of November 1977 enacted even more restrictive provisions for abortion than the conservative Royal Commission had recommended earlier that year. WONAAC set out to mobilise public opinion by organising demonstrations, rallies and pickets, and strongly supported the petition to repeal the abortion law presented in 1978. Although signed by 318,820 people, the petition was in effect ignored by Parliament, though the Act was slightly amended.

WONAAC's style, in a conservative country, was often perceived as abrasive and flamboyant; it discouraged some and attracted others. Members aroused much public attention in the early 1980s by distributing leaflets on contraception outside secondary schools, releasing helium-filled condoms in Parliament, and leafleting Wellington dressed as pregnant schoolgirls. WONAAC also worked hard at writing submissions, lobbying MPs and issuing press releases.

When Labour came to power in 1984, pro-choice women hoped the law would be liberalised. WONAAC prepared a draft bill in 1987, but the Labour women MPs did not sponsor it. A bill to amend the law was finally introduced in 1989. WONAAC fully supported the section which sought to repeal the restrictions on giving contraception information to under-sixteens, but not the section on abortion, which it saw as offering only minor changes of doubtful value. The first section won general support and was passed, but the second was shelved.

WONAAC's submission on the bill was presented by Di Cleary, Adaire Hannah and Jackie McAuliffe, who, with Helen Wilson, Anne Hill and Janine Pollock, had been prominent workers in WONAAC for many years. Cleary in particular had been a vigorous source of encouragement to members, with her strong commitment and her forthright common sense.

ALRANZ, the other main pro-choice group, worked with WONAAC on issues raised by the 1989 bill. Although the relationship between the two organisations was sometimes tense in the 1970s, by the 1990s it had been harmonious for many years. A common concern was the increasing harassment of women entering clinics by anti-abortion agitators, which led WONAAC to organise teams of supporters to protect the clinics and those attending.

WONAAC's small numbers in the 1990s—a few hundred subscribers and an additional hundred on the Wellington telephone tree—did not fairly represent its significance. It was a spearhead for other groups, and pro-choice women throughout the country looked to it for inspiration and support.

Beryl Hughes

1994 – 2018

WONAAC put out its last newsletter in 1992. In subsequent years much of the organising and activism around abortion was taken up by ALRANZ, whose previously more conservative platform had shifted to align with WONAAC's right-to-choose position. Core members of WONAAC continued to meet, and with the help of a substantial bequest from a supporter in 2004, they were able to fund or co-fund several abortion-related projects. These included the researching, writing and publication, 2007-2013, of Fighting to Choose, a history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand by Alison McCulloch, and a subsequent book tour; and in 2012, the setting up of a process for Burmese migrant women on the Thailand-Burma border to access abortions in Thailand.

In 2018 WONAAC members remained active in abortion rights activism as individuals, including through ALRANZ; but as an organisation, WONAAC was concentrating on supporting or funding pro-choice projects and groups with a pro-woman focus.

Alison McCulloch


[1] WONAAC Newsletter, No.78, November 1987, p. 4.

[2] Dann, 1985, p. 53.

Unpublished sources

Women's National Abortion Action Campaign records, 1972-1989, ATL

Women's National Abortion Action Campaign records, 1990-1992, in possession of Di Cleary, Wellington

Published sources

Alison McCulloch, Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2013

Further Sources

Te Ara story on Abortion

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