Dame Margaret Sparrow: abortion rights pioneer at 80-something

“Dame Margaret Sparrow was 21 when she carried out her do-it-yourself abortion. The year was 1956; if you didn’t want a baby, there were few ways out. She sent away for an inky-black elixir from a chemist rumoured to know about such things, and it arrived in the post in a brown paper bag.“I have no idea what the mixture contained, whether it was a health risk or what the margin of safety was,” Margaret writes in a book [published in 2010].“She was desperate. It worked. She had the equivalent of a heavy period, which came earlier than usual. “It happened when I was at work and was not in the least traumatic,” she recalls. “Anticlimactic, really.”Thus opens this interview with Margaret on Broadly with Michele Duff, about how her personal experience led to a distinguished career in medicine and unstinting personal and professional support for abortion rights in New Zealand over many years, which is still going strong.Luckily, she didn’t die from her unsafe abortion. Instead, reports Broadly, she went on to become a leader in the campaign for reproductive rights in New Zealand, gaining a medical degree and becoming one of the first doctors in the country to provide emergency contraceptive pills and train as an abortion doctor. But she did much more. She also fronted the campaign to reform the abortion law in New Zealand, which was changed in 1977, under which almost all abortions are permitted on the ground of protecting the woman’s health.The impetus for the Broadly article was her book, Abortion Then & Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980, published by Victoria University Press (ISBN/SKU: 9780864736321). Margaret has since released another book called Rough on Women: abortion in 19th-Century New Zealand, published by VUW press in 2014. In the 1940s, the Press writes in promoting her book, deaths from septic abortions were an ever-present fear. In the 1950s deaths from sepsis were less common because there was a network of clandestine abortion providers in every community. The 1960s brought the contraceptive pill, feminism, and towards the end of the decade, safer abortions in Australia. The 1970s saw abortion catapulted into the public domain, with protest and debate culminating in law reform in 1977, after which the medical profession finally took responsibility for the introduction of safe abortion services. Since 1978, the legal situation has been indubitably better for patients, doctors and police.Margaret worked early on as a Child Health Medical Officer. From 1969 to 1981, she worked in the Student Health Service at Victoria University, where she saw students who needed contraception and abortion services, neither of which service was provided at that time. This led to her interest in sexual and reproductive health. She was one of the first medical practitioners in New Zealand to offer emergency contraceptive pills. On sabbatical leave from Victoria University in 1976, she studied for the Diploma in Venereology and gained experience in sexually transmitted diseases, family planning and abortion in London, UK. In London and then Bombay, she learned how to do vasectomies and on her return to New Zealand, she worked with Wellington Family Planning from 1971 until her retirement in 2005, where she introduced a vasectomy service and completed nearly 7,000 vasectomies. She also worked as an abortion provider at the Parkview Abortion Clinic from 1980-1998.She was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and an Honorary Vice-President of Family Planning. She was the President of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ), a position she held for 35 years from 1975. She is also a Director of Istar Ltd, a not-for-profit company that she formed with four other abortion providers to import medical abortion pills into New Zealand because no pharmaceutical company would do so. Approval for the medications was obtained in August 2001.Margaret herself writes this on the ALRANZ website’s biography of her:“ALRANZ was formed at a meeting in August 1970 in Auckland and incorporated on 11 February 1971. It arose as a reaction to the anti-abortion campaign being organised by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) formed in 1970.At that time very few abortions were done in public hospitals, and there was no private clinic. Much depended on the views of the gynaecologists practising in an area.The law regarding abortion dated back to the Crimes Act 1908 and had not been changed when the Crimes Act was revised in 1961. The interpretation of the law had been influenced by a famous court case in London in 1938 where Dr Bourne had brought a test case after the rape of a 14-year-old girl.In 1969 there had been a high profile court case in Australia resulting in a more liberal interpretation of the law in the State of Victoria. This meant that for the first time New Zealand women, who could afford it, were able to travel to Melbourne for a private abortion.In most areas in New Zealand illegal abortionists provided a service of sorts, whether it was doctors doing ‘diagnostic D&Cs’, health professionals providing a covert service, backstreet abortionists or chemists purveying remedies to correct menstrual irregularities. In addition, there were numerous techniques for self-abortion.Among health professionals, abortion was a neglected topic, despite the large numbers of women admitted to public hospitals for complications of unsafe abortions.Following the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill into New Zealand in 1961 women began to expect a greater control of their reproductive lives and there was an appreciation that women deserved better services for abortion care. The feminist movement embraced reproductive health care.When working in the Student Health Service at Victoria University I came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to meet the needs of young women.It was in this social environment that ALRANZ emerged strongly pro-choice, with the aim of allowing women the dignity and freedom to decide for themselves whether to continue an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy or to obtain a safe medical abortion.I am proud to have been associated with ALRANZ for the past 35 years.”Victoria University Press describes her book like this: “When women publicly acknowledge they have had an abortion it makes other women realise abortion need not be a shameful secret, associated with feelings of guilt. At the heart of this ground-breaking book are personal stories from women who have had abortions. Their experiences, which encompass suffering and resilience, isolation and community, are deeply moving, and vividly convey 40 years of change. These stories are supplemented with others from the police, doctors, and some of the pro-choice activists and advocates who worked to bring about much-needed change.”Perhaps the nicest thing Broadly reports about her is her own comment, which closes the article:“… There are a lot of women out there who I’ve helped. It’s not unusual for me to be in a supermarket queue and a woman will come up to me and say: ‘You don’t know me, but you changed my life.'”Certainly many of us could say the same thing about the doctors who helped us to have safe abortions and saved our lives too. Thus, we honour them.SOURCES: Broadly, by Michele Duff, 8 November 2016, including photo ; Victoria University Press, 2016 ; Abortion Law Reform Association