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It is a symptom of the cult of celebrity, at every level, that expectations of a person’s character never marry perfectly with reality. I had heard about Dame Margaret Sparrow, and the stories I had been told led me to envisage an elderly hippy whose wild days still showed. My sister had protested alongside her at a rally for abortion rights. My friend’s mother had worked with her at Family Planning, and waxed lyrical about her contribution to sexual health.
But for someone who was at the forefront of so many women’s rights issues, she was decidedly normal and unassuming. This isn’t to degrade her or her achievements; she was welcoming, kind and encouraging. Her stories made me want to cry. She is an important figure in second wave feminism in New Zealand. She is someone to remember and learn from. But she is 80, and she is someone’s grandma.
Her house is nestled into one of the many Kelburn hills, tucked away behind a giant pohutukawa. As we walked to the lounge, we passed a corridor where the walls were covered, top to bottom, with aged newspapers and pamphlets; I prepared myself for the revelation that she might be crazy. She wasn’t, and isn’t. Aside from the wallpaper, what I saw of her house was quintessential to an elderly woman, with embroidered pillows covering the couches, and bluish faded paintings of landscapes adorning the walls alongside framed awards, certificates and degrees. We sat on the couches, and I rested my phone on the coffee table, next to her golden speculum. A trophy given to her at the end of her time at Sexual Health, it perched regally in the centre of the room, entirely at odds with the quilted throws I sat on.
As Sparrow told me about her time in the sexual health world, she spoke in a considered and thoughtful manner. The conversation itself was brief and succinct. Pleasantries fell flat and felt unnecessary. Sparrow isn’t one for tangents, not often at least. For the most part, she was content to answer questions, providing only the information sought. It really was a conversation with a doctor: factual and exact.
An exhibition currently running at Te Papa shows the collection of contraceptive devices that Sparrow curated over the years she worked at Family Planning. The collection boasts douches, diaphragms, and IUDs, all from a range of years and stages of development. It displays the early condom—a lambskin sheath that looks equally uncomfortable for both parties—and the more sleek contemporary designs. In the centre of the room stands a dedication to the Pill, and the revolutionary power it possessed; a tiny dose of hormones that liberated women from the oppressive equation of sex=motherhood.
Sparrow worked and lived through the introduction of the Pill. In fact, due to her husband being a medical student at the time, she was one of the first people in New Zealand to try it. “It was 1961 then and I was having time off studies then because I had just had my first child,” she said. “He came home with some free samples, as you do when you do general practice, and he said ‘why don’t we try these?’ and that’s how I started on the Pill. I lived on free samples for a long time, which is not medically correct.” Sparrow seemed largely unphased by the potential risks; fortunately she experienced no side effects, but there were many who did.
In the early days of the Pill, it was prescribed only to married women; those out of wedlock were left out in the cold. For Sparrow, the Pill allowed her to avoid the daunting realities of fertility; it gave her a choice about her family, and a choice about her future. In her book Abortion Then and Now, she wrote that “without the benefit of the pill I doubt if I would have finished my degree”. She worked for Student Services at Victoria University from 1969 to 1981, and while there she was confronted by the demand for contraception and abortion. Despite the rules around who was prescribed contraception, Sparrow felt “it was more ethical to provide a service that students wanted, needed, and expected”. After a conference with Family Planning, she set up a display for contraceptives in the foyer of the practice, despite the clinic director’s disapproval. Ever since, Student Services have provided contraceptives to all, regardless of marital status.
It was from this same perspective that Sparrow promoted the introduction of the controversial Morning After Pill. Many in the medical industry were loath to engage with a product that so closely resembled an early abortion. But its value to women exceeded its moral ambiguity; Sparrow was not deterred, and continued to promote its introduction.
As Sparrow met the needs for contraceptives, she was unable to so readily meet the demand for abortions. Her patients were students, and falling pregnant. Abortions in New Zealand remained illegal until 1977. Before it became a legal procedure, they were sourced through a backstreet word-of-mouth system, often leading to incredibly risky or fatal procedures. As a doctor, Sparrow found herself stuck in a bind—she had to follow the law, but she saw their need, a need she had experienced in her own youth.
At 21, Sparrow had an abortion. She had deferred entrance to Otago Medical School due to an accident; it was simply the wrong time to have a child. She attempted to induce a miscarriage several ways—from vigorous skipping, to taking a whole bottle of De Witts Pills (pain relievers). None had any effect. Her husband knew of a Mr Bettle, a Christchurch pharmacist who had a mail order service. She posted £3 ($150 in today’s money) down to Christchurch, and received a large bottle of some black concoction. The abortion occurred one day at work and was entirely anticlimactic.
Sparrow’s story is very typical, but not everyone’s abortion was effective and safe. While Mr Bettle had quite a lot of business, there were other options, each a fairly rudimentary version of the surgical abortion process designed to induce a miscarriage. There was a black market; most people knew someone who knew how to get an abortion. There was also a trend to send people to Australia, where abortion was legalised in 1969. Sparrow and several other doctors set up an organised system that sent women to reputable doctors to ensure their safety.
I clarified that I had never had an abortion myself, and that I was fairly naïve about the whole matter. I asked Sparrow to explain the procedure. I hadn’t been sure whether I should ask it or not; why didn’t I Wikipedia it before I arrived? But Sparrow was most obliging, and with clinical precision outlined the procedure that has been so controversial, divisive, and misrepresented.
The procedure is thus: the cervix is injected with local anaesthetic, and a speculum is inserted. The cervical canal is opened using a series of incrementally increasing dilators, until the cervical canal is the size of a pencil. The doctor inserts a catheter “which can now go right into the uterus because you’ve opened up the cervical canal. And that’s connected up to a suction pump—that’s like a vacuum cleaner—and it just suctions away the products inside. And the surgeon will inspect the products to make sure everything is removed… and [the patient] will rest in bed for an hour or two, and then go home.”
Since 2002 a second option has been available to women. Sparrow, along with several other doctors, established a medical company to import an abortion pill; no other pharmaceutical company was interested. The process requires two pills; the first is mifepristone, an anti-progesterone (progesterone keeps a pregnancy going, anti-progesterones stop it). The second pill is a prostaglandin “which stimulates the uterus to expel the products which are in the uterus”. The pills need to be separated by either 12, 24, or 48 hours, and both pills need to be taken at a licensed premise.
After Sparrow outlined the two methods, she noted that “it’s really the difference between having something done to you, and doing something yourself.” The choice is ultimately about suitability and control: “some people, if they have a busy lifestyle, will say ‘oh blow this’—you know, worrying about when it’s going to happen—so make it ten o’clock on Friday. Some women think ‘hey if this is something I can do myself, I’d much sooner just be in charge’. And you find that people easily come to that decision; it’s part of their fabric.”
Each procedure is incredibly safe, and there are many doctors willing to perform the procedures. The legalisation of abortion has allowed the medical profession to take over what had been a back-streets operation—“we haven’t had a death since we started collecting proper statistics in the 1980s”. However, for many, it isn’t the procedure that is the most difficult, but the steps between falling pregnant and procuring an abortion.
The 1970s was a decade of mounting global support for abortion rights. In the US, the 1973 case Roe v Wade ruled that laws prohibiting abortion were unconstitutional, a landmark for women’s rights. In New Zealand, after a historic all-night sitting of Parliament, the 1977 Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed, along with amendments to the Crimes Act.
The new law was based on the recommendations of a very conservative Royal Commission. The Act does not recognise rape, for example, as grounds for abortion, but simply another factor to be taken into consideration. The Commission focused primarily on the rights of the foetus, rather than those of the woman. In Abortion Then and Now, Sparrow wrote of the ruling that “women were portrayed incorrectly as being incapable of making a rational decision”. She was “dismayed” at the Royal Commission’s report—“a great opportunity for advancement had been lost.”
The Act has remained untouched, and time has stood still for abortion rights. “Our law is so old, it’s creaking at the seams,” Sparrow says. “It was devised at a time when only surgical options were there, people didn’t even dream of having a medical abortion pill you could take.” Modern medicine has eclipsed the law. And most significantly, abortion is still a crime.
The Crimes Act only recognises four grounds for an abortion—danger to the physical or mental health of the mother, pregnancy by incest or unlawful familial relationships, or severe mental subnormality of the mother.
The rigmarole women face to procure an abortion is an absurd reality. All abortions must be approved by two certifying consultants, one of them a specialist in gynaecology or obstetrics. Sparrow’s tone grows serious, and her frustration is palpable. “You have to have grounds for an abortion, and in New Zealand 98 per cent of the grounds are mental health, which I think is an absolute farce. It’s just ticking boxes, and just putting people into categories, and just pretending that… having an abortion will be for the sake of your mental health. Well, I think that’s all just barriers that are put up.”
Is New Zealand simply abusing a loophole in the current law? “Yes, which is why I feel very strongly about this,” Sparrow says. “But you have to work around it and we’ve got doctors who are prepared to do this—thank goodness, otherwise we wouldn’t have an abortion service. We have a lot of doctors who are quite prepared to say ‘yes, this really should be done on the grounds of mental health’, even though I think they don’t really believe that that’s the reality… That’s why I’m so passionate about changing the law, because it really is so ridiculous.” The system relies on the willing compliance of doctors who are well aware they are gatekeepers of the loophole. Take that away, and we’re back to square one.
The same process is required for medical abortions as for surgical abortions. But the road has a different set of speed bumps. “The law says that all abortions must be carried out at a licensed institution,” Sparrow says. “Well, that’s okay for a surgical abortion, but for a medical abortion it’s a two-stage process and you don’t need a licensed premise to take a pill.” Returning to take the second pill is restrictive, putting those who live in rural, isolated areas at a disadvantage. With medical abortions making up around six to eight per cent of all abortions, it’s not yet a viable or popular option for many who need it. Most of Europe and the US require the patient to simply take the first pill on site, usually in the examining room, and they then provide the patient with information and instructions for the following pill.
Sparrow has great distaste for what she refers to as the “awfulisation” of abortion. Abortion is treated as a traumatic procedure with profound emotional impact—a symptom of the silence and suspicion in which the subject is cloaked. Bringing abortion into the medical mainstream, and recasting it as a standard medical or surgical procedure, would eradicate the stigma and shame it can cause to the vulnerable.
Sparrow has written many articles, both medical and political, advocating for a change in the law. She has two books under her belt, Abortion Then and Now and Rough on Women, on abortion in New Zealand and its history of unnecessary fatalities. Her 2004 article “A Woman’s Choice” provides a tidy summary of her perspective on this issue—“it is more healthy to respect autonomy and self-determination rather than adopt a ‘we know best’ stance, whoever that ‘we’ is—politicians, lobby groups, religious groups or health professionals.”
Sparrow speaks fondly of the new generation of feminists. “I’m very encouraged by the way young women have taken a leadership role in abortion law reform,” she says. “It was a great weight off my shoulders.” A second-wave feminist, Sparrow recognises the lessons to be taken from her generation—“I don’t think we talked about rights so much,” she says—and is pleased to see a much clearer handle on this now.
It’s the conservative movement she’s despondent about. As we spoke, and as this article goes to print, Sparrow is awaiting a ruling in Right to Life Inc vs Abortion Supervisory Committee, a case heard by the Wellington High Court in June. Tauranga’s Family Planning clinic was granted a license under the Abortion Supervisory Committee, but only offers medical abortion. Right to Life, the anti-abortion lobbyists whose tagline reads “Upholding the Sanctity of Life in New Zealand”, have taken them to court arguing that practicing only medical abortions is unlawful. Right to Life has framed their move using feminist language—abortion is described as an assault on women, and therefore as part of a “war on women”. The same regression and doctored rhetoric is rife in the US, where politically motivated state courts repeatedly undermine the Roe vs Wade precedent.
Considering the broad social support for the marriage equality bill in New Zealand, could there be a similar push for abortion law reform? Sparrow doesn’t think so. She believes the status of abortion as a “women’s issue” reduces its urgency. Even in liberal circles, Sparrow has come up against a “don’t rock the boat” mentality—a mindset that keeps women in their marginalised position.
Our conversation finds a natural pause, and there’s an emotional exhaustion in the room. I’m tired after an hour of discussing these frustrating realities; Sparrow, on the other hand, is ready to head off to a debate about how workplaces should treat victims of domestic abuse. Her spare time is filled with a ceaseless focus on the marginalised world women have resided in. We say goodbye, and I walk back to work, my stride somehow feels stronger than it had before I had met her.
Please see the Family Planning website (familyplanning.org.nz) or the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand website (alranz.org) for more information.
This article was amended on 19 August 2015.