Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XIII — the practice of procuring abortion

page 221

Chapter XIII
the practice of procuring abortion

Procuring abortion in the old days appears to have been limited to women of high rank who, for reasons of policy, were not allowed to have children. When it is remembered that every lady of rank who married into another tribe might bear children who, as vasu, would have a lien upon every kind of property belonging to their mother's tribe, it is not surprising that means were taken to limit the number of her offspring. In a polygamous society every wife had an interest in preventing her rivals from bearing sons who might dispute the succession with her own offspring, and the chief wife wielded an authority over the inferior wives that enabled her to carry her wishes into effect. Waterhouse mentions that professional abortionists were sent in the train of every lady who married out of the tribe, with instructions to procure the miscarriage of her mistress. The Rev. Walter Lawry, who visited Mbau in 1847, declares, on the authority of all the resident missionaries, that the practice was reduced to a system. But these motives did not operate with the common people, who were seldom in a position to pay the practitioner's fee, although, no doubt, dislike of the long abstinence enjoined during suckling and disinclination to bear children to a man they hated were motives strong enough to induce a few women in every class to rid themselves of their children. The abortionist's craft was then in the hands of a few professional experts, who made too good a thing of their trade to trust their secrets to any but their daughters who were to succeed to their practice.

page 222

All this is now changed. Both the motive and the means have spread far and wide. The secrets of the trade are common property, and the act is unskilfully attempted by the mother or older female relation of every pregnant woman who cares to take the risk of an operation. By a strange irony the rapid increase in the practice of abortion in recent years is to some extent the doing of the missionaries. With the decay of the custom of separating the sexes at night intrigues with unmarried women increased, and to fight this growing vice the missionaries visited the breach of the Seventh Commandment with expulsion from Church membership. The girls have come to prize highly their thurusinga (lit., entrance into daylight), as communion with the Wesleyan Church is called, and, when they find themselves pregnant, the dread of exposure, expulsion and disgrace drive them to the usual expedients for destroying the evidence of their frailty. Although by suppressing the usual feasts and presentations in the case of illegitimate births, and by refusing the sacrament of baptism to illegitimate children, the Mission authorities may have given some impetus to the practice of abortion, there can be little doubt that an illegitimate birth brought even more shame upon families of every rank but the lowest in heathen times than at present—unless the putative father was of high rank. There still exists enough of the stern customary law that punished incontinency to cast a social stigma upon the mother of an illegitimate child; there still survives enough of the ethical code that refused to regard the procurement of abortion as a criminal act to warrant women in choosing what is to them the lesser of two evils. Moreover, the tendency to the practice of abortion is cumulative. A girl induces miscarriage to escape the shame of her first pregnancy. To the natural tendency of women who have once miscarried to repeat the accident is added the temptation to undergo, for the second time, an operation that has already been successful. If Fijian women dislike the burden of tending children born in wedlock, much more do they shrink from maternity coupled with the disgrace of illegitimacy. The natives themselves quote instances of a number of minor page 223motives, such as the dread of the pains of childbirth, and the determination of a wife not to bear children to a man she hates or quarrels with—motives which have influenced women of every race from the beginning of time, and which will continue to do so until the end.

A high birth-rate is not incompatible with the extensive practice of abortion, where the proportion of stillbirth is also high, and the women are so careful to conceal their practices that it is highly probable that they conspire to represent to the native registrars as post-natal deaths miscarriages that have been caused artificially. The natives of Vanualevu are reputed to be the most adept in procuring abortion, and the three provinces included in that island show the abnormal stillbirth-rate of 10 per cent. of the total births, while their general birth-rate is the lowest in the colony. It must be remembered that, since procuring abortion is regarded as a criminal act, the practice is now concealed, hot from any sense of shame, but from fear of criminal prosecution. The practice is veiled with so much secrecy that very few prosecutions have taken place.

The methods of the Fijians are, as in other countries, both toxic and mechanical. Certain herbs, called collectively wai ni yava (medicines for causing barrenness), are taken with the intention of preventing conception, but the belief in their efficacy is not general. Some midwives, however, say that, when taken by nursing mothers with the view of preventing a second conception, they result in the death of the child. Another midwife—one of the class to which the professional abortionists belong—assured us that miscarriage resulted more frequently from distress of mind at the discovery of pregnancy than from the drugs that were taken. The abortives vary with the district and the practitioner, but they are all the leaves, bark or root of herbs, chewed or grated, and infused in water, and there is no reason why some of them should not be as effective as the medicines employed for the purpose by civilized peoples, though the mode of preparation is naturally more crude, and the doses more nauseous and copious than the extracts known to modern pharmacy. The page 224"wise women" appear to know that drugs which irritate the bowel have an indirect effect upon the pelvic viscera. Andi Ama of Namata stated that old women caution young married women against drinking wai vuso (frothy drinks), meaning a certain class of native medicine made from the stems of climbing plants whose saps impart a frothy or soapy quality to the infusion, which are taken under various pretexts, but generally as cathartics. None of these drugs have, yet been collected and subjected to examination or experiment, and if any reliance can be placed on the belief placed by old settlers in the efficacy of native remedies, it is possible that some of them will find an honourable place in the Pharmacopoeia.

I do not think that many miscarriages are caused by the taking of infusions alone, though there are undoubtedly cases in which a long illness, or even death, has resulted from such attempts. Nevertheless, even though it be extremely difficult to procure abortion by administering herbs, as stated by one midwife, it is certain that every determined interference with the course of nature must be attended with danger.

Foremost among mechanical means is the sau, which is a skewer made of losilosi wood, or a reed. It is used, of course, to pierce the membranes, and in unskilful hands it must be a death-dealing weapon. Indeed, it must more often be fatal to the mother than to the fœtus; for Taylor has pointed out that this mode of procuring abortion is only likely to succeed in the hands of persons who have an anatomical knowledge of the parts,1 and even the "wise women" have shown themselves to be guiltless of even the most elementary anatomical knowledge. There are, however, well-attested cases of persons living who bear the mark of the sau on their heads. In 1893 there was a man living in Taveuni who bore the scar of such a wound on his right temple, and the fact that the right parietal bone would be the part wounded by an instrument used shortly before the commencement of labour in normal presentations gives a strong colour of truth to the story of Andi page 225Lusiana and other trustworthy natives who knew the young man and the circumstances of his birth.

The various methods of inducing miscarriage by violence, such as are practised by the Gilbert Islanders, who pound the abdomen of a pregnant women with stones, or force the foetus downwards by winding a cord tightly about her body, are not resorted to by the Fijians, but the practice of vakasilima (lit., bathing), a manual operation which midwives are in the habit of performing with the object of alleviating the ailments of pregnancy, do, either by accident or design, sometimes result in a radical cure by causing the expulsion of the foetus. The patient is taken into the river or the sea, and squats waist-deep in the water with the "wise women," who subjects her to a vaginal examination to enable her to ascertain the condition of the os uteri, and, through this digital diagnosis, to determine the particular herb to be used locally or internally. Some women assert that the examination under water is adopted for cleanliness only, but most seem to believe that there is virtue in the operation by itself without any subsequent herbal treatment. As there are many practitioners who devote themselves exclusively to this branch of practice, it is more than likely that it is often used as a pretext for an attempt to procure abortion, for a rough manipulation of the os uteri may excite uterine contraction, and so bring about expulsion of the foetus. Treatment by vakasilima is used in every form of disease in the abdominal region to which women are subject, and the manipulation of the fundus and vagina is so rough that the patient cries out with the pain.

Bombo (massage) is sometimes practised upon pregnant women with the result, if not the intention, of producing miscarriage. A few years ago a notorious instance occurred at Rewa. A pregnant woman, who suffered pain and discomfort, was received into the Colonial Hospital. After a week's detention the surgeon advised her to go home, and await the term of her gestation, since she was suffering from some functional derangement common to her condition. She fell into the hands of a noted amateur "wise woman," who page 226diagnosed her complaint as possession by a malignant spirit, and proceeded to exorcise it by the usual means of forcible expulsion by massage. The pinching and kneading began at the solid parts of the trunk, and when the evil spirit fled for refuge into the limbs, they were continued towards the extremities, and the apertures of the body, which are the natural avenues of escape for the afflicting spirit. But the only spirit which the masseuse succeeded in exorcising was the patient's own, for she died of the operation, and the facts were concealed from the authorities for some weeks. The magisterial inquiry did not elicit whether the object was abortion, or merely the alleviation of pain.

A census taken in 1893 of the families of twelve villages showed that out of 448 mothers of existing families 55 had been subject to abortion or miscarriage. If these villages were representative of the people at large, 12.7 per cent., rather more than one-eighth, of the child-bearing women of the Fijians have to contend with this adverse condition, and, as has been said, the provinces that have abnormally low and decreasing birth-rates—Mathuata, Mbua, and Thakaundrove are the very parts where the "wise women" are noted for their skill as abortionists. These facts would almost suffice in themselves to account for the decrease of the race.

The Government has made half-hearted attempts to stamp out the practice of abortion. The heavy penalty provided by Native Regulation No. 2 of 1887 having failed for want of prosecution, the native magistrates were ordered to hold inquests in all cases of infant deaths, but when all the witnesses are in league to conceal the truth, it would be surprising if the intended effect of intimidating professional abortionists were secured by such means. Post-mortem examinations of women dying in premature confinement were thought of, but it was feared that the repugnance which Fijians feel to these examinations would lead to the concealment of death in such cases.

It was hoped that the Travelling European Inspectors appointed in 1898 to go from village to village enforcing the Native Regulations might initiate a few prosecutions, and so page 227frighten the professional abortionist, who now practises with complete impunity, for as soon as the people have an objectlesson of the risk she is running in her nefarious occupation, a quarrel among the women of the village will bring forward informers to denounce her. But, since no legal penalty has ever succeeded in stamping out a practice that is secretly approved by the popular conscience, all that can be hoped for is a slight decrease in the stillbirth-rate.

1 Medical Jurisprudence.