Voice for Life, formerly SPUC - History

Two Auckland-based specialists in obstetrics and gynaecology, Dr Pat Dunn and Professor Sir William Liley, launched SPUC in 1970 and inspired thousands of New Zealanders to join the anti-abortion movement.

  • By the beginning of 1972, there were 24 branches with about 20,000 members.
  • An anti-abortion march down Auckland's Queen St. in 1973 attracted an estimated 4,500 people, but was largely ignored by the media.
  • The anti-abortion campaign in 1975, began with a national petition to Parliament signed by 113,381 New Zealanders.
  • By 1983, it was accepted that Parliament's intention with the 1977 CS&A Act was routinely ignored by certifying consultants.
  • SPUC, rebranded to Voice for Life in 2004, carries on sustained in the belief that the high abortion figures would be higher still, if they were to cease their work.
By the late 1960s, it was clear that abortion might soon be legalized along the lines of the 1967 British Abortion Act.

Two Auckland-based specialists in obstetrics and gynaecology, Dr Pat Dunn and Professor Sir William Liley, were alarmed by developments in Britain. They noted that many more abortions were now being performed in public hospitals. Some of their colleagues were involved, and openly supportive of abortion law reform.

In 1963, Sir William had pioneered a technique for carrying out blood transfusions on unborn children, their lives in danger because of rH incompatibility with their mothers. The November 1963 edition of the British Medical Journal, carried Sir William's report of a medical breakthrough - the first time an unborn child had been successfully treated as a patient.

National Women's Hospital became internationally famous, the medical speciality of perinatology was established and Sir William Liley was dubbed the "Father of Foetology".
Dr Pat Dunn and Sir William Liley inspired thousands of New Zealanders to join the anti-abortion movement.

Dr Pat Dunn was a devout Catholic, Sir William a professed agnostic. He was in awe of the wonders of human development from conception to birth and this enthusiasm, combined with his personal charm and medical prestige, made him a credible advocate.

Together they inspired thousands of New Zealanders to join the anti-abortion movement. They also provided professional medical assurance that abortion involved the killing of an individual human person – however small at that stage.

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child was launched on 8th March 1970.Within two months there were 1000 members, after nine months 12,000, with membership increasing by about 250 a week.

Dr Pat Dunn and Sir William addressed 400 people on a cold, wet night in the Auckland Town Hall. Half way through his presentation on the humanity of the unborn child, Sir William called for silence while he played a tape of the amplified heartbeat of a 10-week old foetus. The rapid, swishing, thumping sound echoing around the vast Town Hall, had a galvanizing effect on the audience.

The Society had three aims:
  • To uphold the inherent value of human life
  • To uphold and protect the rights of unborn children from conception
  • To maintain and improve legal, social and medical safeguards for protecting and preserving the rights of unborn children
At that Auckland meeting, support for the Society was given by Councillor E.P.Salmon (representing the Mayor), Norman Douglas, Labour MP for Auckland Central, Rabbi Astor of the Jewish community, and Brigadier Goffin from the Salvation Army.

Over the next weeks, Dr Pat accompanied by his wife June, embarked on a whistlestop lecture tour of towns and cities throughout New Zealand. Volunteers were recruited after these meetings to set up local branches.

Sir William's personal prestige ensured a packed Wellington Town Hall, followed by another public meeting for those who couldn't get into the first. He and Dr Dunn provided leadership and a fledgling organization to thousands of people deeply concerned about the issue, but unsure how to act.

By March 1971, Professor Liley and Dr Dunn had inspired 15,000 people to join SPUC. Although not formed into a national body at that stage, Professor Liley was president, Dr Dunn, vice-president and editor of the newsletter. During its first year, SPUC enjoyed regular media coverage.
In July 1971, SPUC brought Mrs Jill Knight, a British Conser-vative MP to talk about abortion in Britain.

In July 1971, SPUC brought Mrs Jill Knight, a British Conservative MP to talk about abortion in Britain. She had four television appearances, eight radio sessions, and 16 newspaper and magazine interviews. Jill Knight met MPs and spoke at well-attended public meetings in the four main centres.

By the beginning of 1972, there were 24 branches with about 20,000 members. A national conference was held in March, to officially launch the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

In 1973, the first national conference was held in Auckland in March, followed by an evening march down Queen St on July 13. Organised by Auckland University's Right to Life group, the march attracted an estimated 4,500 people, but was largely ignored by the media.

Capital Politics
The 1974 national conference was held in Wellington. Sir William Liley retired as national president and was replaced by Dr Diana Mason (wife of the playwright Bruce Mason). The national headquarters moved to Wellington. Diana Mason was later succeeded by top Wellington lawyer, Des Dalgety, who brought formidable legal and political skills to the movement.

1974 saw the Aotea abortion clinic open, the Wall Bill was introduced to Parliament and Prime Minister Norman Kirk (a strong anti-abortion supporter) died.

Also at this conference, Mrs Ruth Kirk, wife of the then Prime Minister (Norman Kirk), was elected third national patron. Mrs Kirk's patronage caused great public controversy, and while the right to have her personal views was respected, members of the Labour Party and various women's groups deplored the political implications of her accepting this position. By this time SPUC was claiming a total membership of about 40,000 members.
The anti-abortion campaign in 1975, began with a national petition to Parliament signed by 113,381 New Zealanders.

The anti-abortion campaign in 1975, began with a national petition to Parliament signed by 113,381 New Zealanders. A large rally at the Auckland YMCA stadium was addressed by Dr Carolyn Gerster from the USA and Winifred Egan from Australia.
In 1973,the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists supported restricting abortions to public hospitals. Dr Gerald Wall, a Labour Member of Parliament for Porirua, introduced, in August 1974, the Hospital Amendment Bill (known as the Wall Bill) to put this into effect. It became law in May 1975 but an amendment allowed the Director General of Health to license private hospitals within specific guidelines.
First Clinic Licenced
In 1975, the Wall Bill passed, but later that year, the Director-General of Health frustrated its intent by licensing the Aotea Clinic. A later Supreme Court decision by Mr Justice Speight effectively nullified the legislation.

The Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion was established on 23rd June, 1975. SPUC saw this development as crucial and put all its resources into gathering evidence, bringing out expert witnesses and engaging senior counsels to present its case.

In 1976, the Gill Bill was introduced into Parliament and shelved. On September 26th, SPUC held its biggest ever anti-abortion march in Auckland. Torrential rain had poured all day, the organizers feared a low turnout. Despite the rain, an estimated 5,000 people assembled in Myers Park and marched out at 7pm down Queen St. There were so many that when the first marchers reached Customs St, the procession was still leaving Myers Park.

Television stayed away and in response to complaints about censorship, stated that the march was too late for the evening news and would be "stale" by the next day.

In 1977, the Royal Commission issued its report. Later in the year, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed, the Aotea clinic closed.

The Tide Turns
The end of 1977 marked the highpoint of SPUC's success as a pressure group. It's lobbying skills and influence were widely acknowledged. The NZ Listener in February, 1978, ran a profile by journalist Warwick Roger, entitled "SPUC: a seven-year success story". But over the next years, a series of court decisions would nullify the gains and ironically place certifying consultants and the clinics beyond the reach of the law.
Abortion was increasingly seen as a liberal, compassionate, "women's issue".

Abortion was increasingly seen as a liberal, compassionate "women's issue". As Roger notes: "When SPUC held a media forum in Wellington in 1976, 40 journalists were expected, most of them from the parliamentary press gallery. 16 turned up, none of them from the press gallery."

By the end of 1979, the abortion figures had returned to the level of 1976, when the Royal Commission found a virtual abortion on request situation existed.

By 1983, it was accepted that Parliament's intention with the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was routinely ignored by certifying consultants. The Abortion Supervisory Committee, the statutory body that administered the consultants, repeatedly rejected requests to intervene.

The Status of the Unborn Child Bill
In early 1983, SPUC's national executive were uncertain how the recent setbacks with the Courts could be remedied. They invited Des Dalgety to explore possible legislative avenues. Changes in the Guardianship Act and the Judicature Amendment Act could meet the question of standing and judicial review of consultant's decisions, but there was no certainty that these measures would limit the escalating number of abortions.

Des Dalgety concluded that the services of a retired parliamentary law draftsman should be sought. Ironically the man chosen, Nigel Jamieson, a lecturer in jurisprudence at Otago University, sympathized with the abortion-rights case. He subsequently re-assessed the issue and advised SPUC that an entirely new approach was required.

By July the first draft was ready, the starting point being that it had been established beyond all reasonable doubt by modern science, that human life existed from the very start of pregnancy. This led logically to the legal status of the unborn child.
There is an unwritten convention that abortion legislation is kept out of Parliament in an election year

There is an unwritten convention that abortion legislation is kept out of Parliament in an election year (1984). Jamieson was under great pressure to complete the Status of the Unborn Child Bill by 6 October, 1983. Des Dalgety had to brief the Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon and supportive MPs, knowing there would be very little time to have the bill move through the select committee and the readings, before Parliament closed for the year.

On 7th October, Marlborough MP (and later Speaker of the House) Doug Kidd agreed to bring the bill into the House.

The atmosphere in Parliament was electric. It seemed a small majority of MPs would support the bill, but SPUC found that limited time prevented personal briefing sessions. This was to prove fatal, when there was later confusion about aspects of the legislation.

Counter Move
Within days, Marilyn Waring announced that she was bringing a Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Repeal bill into the House. It was seen as a move to retain the status quo, providing MPs with the option of opposing both Waring and Kidd bills, and then claiming they had opposed efforts to make abortions more readily available.

The CS&A Repeal bill would repeal the Act and make abortions a matter between the woman and her doctor.

MPs spoke with great passion in support of either bills. The Waring bill was voted on first, going down 20 to 57. The House then returned to the Kidd bill. There was a sense of unease among some supportive MPs, that there were no provision for exceptional circumstances such as rape, incest or foetal abnormality. Some indicated they would seek amendments once the bill went to select committee.

The Vote
It was time to vote. By 48 to 30 votes, Parliament opposed the introduction of the Status of the Unborn Child Bill. 20 MPs supported the Waring bill, 30 supported the Kidd bill – and 28 who opposed both bills.

Since 1983, SPUC has never attempted to promote legislation again. Doug Kidd had to endure personal attacks outside of Parliament, of such a nature that they have served as a salutary warning to other MPs ever since.

Ironically in 1997, the SPUC executive had to clamp down on a group within the Christchurch branch, who wanted to promote the Status of the Unborn Child bill again. The executive had taken discreet soundings and knew there weren't the "numbers" in Parliament to support such legislation.

They had also consulted with their British counterparts, who strongly advised against such a move. SPUC UK, had promoted a similarly-named bill and over estimated the numbers. Abortion-rights MPs countered with a series of amendments, which were quickly voted through. SPUC UK not only lost the bill, but the British Abortion Act was further liberalised.
"MPs dread the prospect of the abortion issue being raised in the House. They prefer to live with the status quo..."

A senior anti abortion MP described in the late 1990s, the practical considerations of the situation in New Zealand's parliament: "MPs dread the prospect of the abortion issue being raised in the House. They prefer to live with the status quo, which is a relatively strong law on the statute books, but with abortion easily available for whoever wants it. It's cynical, but that's the way it is."

SPUC Moves On
The focus now shifted to education and changing "hearts and minds". MP Helen Clark had commented in the House that "SPUC was a spent force". This spurred the national executive to commission an ambitious television advertising campaign in 1986.

In the mid-90s, a series of cinema advertisements were shown nationwide. Their soft approach, about making a choice to be strong, had proved successful in the United States. The voiceovers were dubbed with New Zealand accents.

Informed Consent
Another initiative in the mid-90s, was the Informed Consent booklet. For years there had been concern about the accuracy and content of the information provided by counselors attached to the abortion clinics.
The Ministry of Health published an 18-page booklet entitled "Considering an Abortion? What are your Options?"


The SPUC national executive first approached the Abortion Supervisory Committee to commission a booklet, which would give women the necessary information to make an informed choice. The Committee deliberated and passed the task to the Ministry of Health, whose Minister was the strongly anti-abortion Bill English.

A working party in Auckland was commissioned to write the draft. The members were Dr John Taylor, who had recently retired after years as the chief operating surgeon at the Epsom Day abortion clinic. Dr Christine Roke, a senior official of the NZ Family Planning Association and Annetta Moran, a secondary school teacher and a member of the national executive of SPUC.

Six months later, the first draft was ready, but already being publicly criticized as a "SPUC document". Bill English later admitted that he struck repeated delaying tactics in getting the booklet through the Ministry.

In September 1998, the Ministry published 25,000 of the 18-page booklet entitled "Considering an Abortion? What are your Options?". Most were sent to GPs around the country and the feedback indicated they were acceptable and proving useful.

However, the NZ Family Planning Association returned their copies to the Ministry, as did counseling staff at abortion clinics around the country. The Ministry then declined to print further copies and has maintained this policy despite repeated requests from SPUC.

In February, 2003, SPUC hosted Dr Angela Lanfranchi, an associate professor of breast surgery in New Jersey. She was on her way to Australia to lecture on the alleged link between abortion of a first pregnancy and breast cancer. In Auckland, she gave a lecture attended by breast surgeons at Auckland Hospital and several media interviews. Breast cancer organizations declined to meet with her and several leading breast surgeons dismissed her evidence. However, controversy about this issue continued in magazine columns and letters for months.
The heady days of the 70s, when thousands rallied to the new cause, are a distant memory.


Grassroots Activity
Most SPUC activity takes place in local branches around the country. Members write letters to their local papers, fundraise with cake stalls, set up displays at market and field days and promote the message to local churches and community groups.

The heady days of the 70s, when thousands rallied to the new cause, are a distant memory. Age and death have thinned the ranks to a national membership of 30,000 (as at September, 2003). The abortion numbers may increase every year, but SPUC carries on, sustained in the belief that the figures would be higher still, if they were to cease their work.

After a two year consultation process, in September 2004 a vote taken by the national executive of SPUC to rebrand, was unanimous. It was decided that with the issue of euthanasia looming in New Zealand, a new name was necessary to allow the organisation to take on not only the isue of abortion but also other "life" issues, such as euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and cloning.