Women’s Health Action, formerly Fertility Action was founded in 1984 by women’s health activists Phillida Bunkle and Sandra Coney. Fertility Action had its beginnings in reproductive health and rights. Concerned about the rates of Chlamydia in asymptomatic women and the seeming indifference of much of the medical profession, Phillida Bunkle concluded,
‘More would have to be done. Information would have to be put in women’s hands’.
Fertility Action was thus founded and the vision of promoting women’s health and wellbeing remains at the centre of Women’s Health’s Action work today.
The early work of Fertility Action focused on reproductive rights. In 1985 Fertility Action alongside other women’s health groups publicised the dangers of the Intra-uterine contraceptive device (IUD) Dalkon Shield and led a campaign for government led removal and for a surveillance programme of all IUD’s. Fertility Action wrote articles, talked with the media and the response was overwhelming, hundreds of women injured by IUDs made contact. By April 1986, Fertility Action had sent 258 of the 486 claims from New Zealand women to the United States for legal action.
From late 1986 Fertility Action began working on wider women’s health issues including what is now known as ‘The Unfortunate Experiment’ at National Womens’ Hospital in Auckland. Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle published an article in Metro, outlining an unethical study at National Women’s Hospital. The study, led by Dr Herbert Green, started in 1966, and involved following women with major cervical abnormalities without definitively treating them, and without their knowledge or consent. The Inquiry into the Allegations Concerning the Treatment of Cervical Cancer at National Women’s Hospital in 1987 and 1988, known as the Cartwright Inquiry after the presiding judge, Judge Dame Silvia Cartwright, is remembered as one of the most significant medical events of the twentieth century. Judge Cartwright recommended a series of reforms to enhance patient welfare and to ensure the protection of patient rights.
In the late 1980’s Fertility Action worked to ensure the recommendations of the Cartwright Inquiry were realised. The organisation lobbied for changes in the health system to make it more responsive to consumer needs, and was pleased with the establishment of the national screening programme and the Health and Disability Commissioner. Fertility Action also set up a women’s health information service to assist women to become more informed health care consumers.
In January 1990 Fertility Action was formally made a charitable trust and in 1993, the name was changed to Women’s Health Action to reflect the broader issues it was engaged in. Women’s Health Action continued to provide evidenced-based information and advocate for consumer-focused health policy and service delivery. This included, facilitating a Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) campaign ensuring overseas research was available to New Zealand women so they could understand the risks of taking HRT, and widely publicised the risk of blood clots in young women associated with third generation contraceptive pills.
Women’s Health Action also played a significant role in two further major health service inquires; the Baby Physiotherapy Inquiry into injuries and deaths among pre-term neonates at National Women’s Hospital; and the Gisborne Inquiry into under-reporting of women’s cervical smears (2000).
Since 2001 Women’s Health Action has worked to support and promote breastfeeding in Aotearoa New Zealand including beginning the Big Latch On in 2005 which has since become an international event.
In 2012 Women’s Health Action took over the body image health promotion activities from the Eating Difficulties Education Network (EDEN) and facilitates peer to peer youth development body image programmes in schools and offers Nourish professional development programmes for people working with young people.
The issues that spurred the founding of Women’s Health Action remain relevant today and the promotion of women’s health and wellbeing remains at the heart of our work.