Sexual health pioneer Margaret Sparrow: a dame with determination

Dame Margaret Sparrow has pioneered sexual health services for New Zealand women
David White

Dame Margaret Sparrow has pioneered sexual health services for New Zealand women

There are fairies on the cushions and fantails on the sofa throw. 

A quilted jacket swaddles her delicate frame, the gas fire dribbling warmth into the Wellington winter.

In the foyer of her modest cottage, one wall is papered with mementos from a long-ago OE. Probably the same trip on which she performed vasectomies in India and learnt to conduct suction abortions. 

Abortion doctors were met with emotive pro-life slogans, such as this placard brandished by a protester at the 1978 ...

Abortion doctors were met with emotive pro-life slogans, such as this placard brandished by a protester at the 1978 International Women's Day march in Wellington.

She might now be an 80-year-old grandmother, but beneath the soft exterior are the steel foundations required to champion the most unpopular of causes – abortion.

Dame Margaret Sparrow's two-minute, 20-second summary of her life goes something like this: university, unplanned pregnancy, abortion, medical degree, children, marriage split, student-health job, sabbatical, career doing abortion, family planning and sexual-health medicine.

The coffee table provides a still more succinct pictogram of her career. A mounted brass speculum sits alongside a pebble with a single word: "Focus".

Dame Margaret Sparrow is sweet but steely. Photo: David White

It wasn't until four years after that overseas sabbatical that Sparrow finally got to use the skills she had learnt. It was 1980, and for five years she'd already been the face of the campaign to legalise abortion in New Zealand. But when the Parkview abortion clinic opened in the grounds of Wellington Hospital, the argument turned "really quite nasty".

"It is all very well to campaign in favour of abortion, but the most political act for me was to be in the theatre actually doing the operations.

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"Every time you went to the clinic, every time you came around that corner, you had no idea what you were going to find. Sometimes there would be up to 100 people with protest banners. Sometimes there would be lone people praying for you."

Pro-life campaigners leaflet-dropped Sparrow's neighbours warning their property values would fall because they lived next door to this murderer. Someone tried to dump a load of wet concrete on her driveway before a neighbour interceded.

Sparrow's two children were teenagers at the time. She was and remains fiercely protective, shielding them from all publicity.

She and fellow abortion doctor Carol Shand, who also had a wet concrete near-miss, would debrief over cups of tea. Shand, who first met Sparrow when she was a very conscientious student, says Sparrow really is as unfailingly sweet as she seems.

"At the same time, she has a will of steel. She just quietly sticks to her guns."

There have been countless awards along the way: an MBE, a damehood, the Suffrage Centennial Medal. Since her retirement, in amongst the Scottish country dancing and Zonta debates, Sparrow has also written two books about the grim history of illegal abortion and its toll on Kiwi women.

There have been victories, too. Sparrow was one of the first doctors to provide the emergency contraceptive, or morning-after pill. When a French company introduced the RU-486 pill for medical abortions, no New Zealand drug company would touch it. So she and four other doctors formed a non-profit drug company to sell it here.

But there have also been disappointments. At the height of the fight, she would never have imagined that even in 2015 abortion would be allowable only if two consultants agree a woman's health is at risk.

When the Parkview clinic decided all abortion doctors must also be certifying consultants, Sparrow chose to sacrifice her job rather than her principles. How could she fulfil a role she did not believe should exist? "You have to trust people to make the best decision according to their beliefs, their economic circumstances and their family situation."

Dame Margaret Sparrow in 2004, with plastic foetuses being sold to anti-abortionists by Pregnancy Counselling Services. Photo: Kent Blechynden/Fairfax NZ

Biographies of Sparrow typically begin in 1956. It was a big year – she married, broke her pelvis in a car accident and turned 21. It was also the year she chose to abort an unplanned pregnancy with a bottle of George Bettle's black medicine, covertly obtained for £3 by mail order.

Given her later decades campaigning for easier and safer access to abortion for New Zealand women, commentators have freighted that event with great significance. But at the time it was just a thing that happened, she says. The non-traditionalist was formed much earlier.

To understand just how much Sparrow has helped advance women's health, you have to understand the world she came from. You are really a product of your time, she says. In fact, she was always ahead of hers.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Taranaki, she "should have learnt how to bake scones and pikelets and married a local farmer". Instead, she won a scholarship to Victoria University to study science.

She met her future husband, Peter, at an art exhibition in Christchurch, part-way through her degree. He planned to study medicine, and Sparrow decided to follow suit. They got engaged and moved to Dunedin.

If you're imagining a rising and outspoken feminist, don't. When her student allowance was withdrawn on her marriage – because husbands were supposed to provide – it did not occur to her to protest the injustice. "I just accepted it. That was life."

Back then it was deemed unethical to provide contraception to unmarried women, so you needed proof of impending marriage. They couldn't afford a ring, so Sparrow visited the gynaecologist armed with the parish magazine bearing their engagement notice.

But the diaphragm failed and she fell pregnant. Living costs meant a child was out of the question. So this sensible, educated scientist abandoned reason for mystery potions.

"The first thing you do is all the silly things," she says. "The old wives' tales – jumping, skipping, exercise. Then I took a bottle of De Witt's pills. All that did was turn my urine blue."

Peter knew about Christchurch chemist George Bettle's mysterious medicine. Sparrow remembers feeling only relief when the potion worked.

Later, the diaphragm failed again, so the couple juggled their studies with a baby. When their son was born in 1958, there were no crèches or subsidised childcare. They flatted with a solo-mum classmate, taking turns to watch the babies, with the two students who attended the lectures reporting back.

When they had a daughter two years later, Sparrow took two years off study. It was then that she began a lifetime of firsts, becoming one of the first New Zealand women to take the contraceptive pill.

She lived off free samples doled out to Peter, who was doing a student placement at a general practice. That harbinger of a sexual revolution, Anovlar, contained much higher doses of oestrogen than the modern pill, but Sparrow was lucky not to suffer side effects.

At that time and for years after, prescribing the pill to unmarried women was disparaged. But again she was not out protesting. That would come later. ("I was too busy washing nappies".)

Pro-choice abortion protesters march through Wellington streets on International Women's Day, 8 March 1978. Photo: The Evening Post

In the mid-60s, only 3.5 marriages in every 1000 ended in divorce.

Sparrow and Peter never legally divorced, but they became the first couple in Sparrow's strict Presbyterian family to ever separate. She moved back home to Taranaki and found a 9am to 5pm job in public health.

Dame Margaret can't identify in herself what has enabled her to chart such an unconventional course. It's not that she's impervious to criticism. "I care very much what other people think, but I suppose only the people close to me."

She is no fearsome activist type, breathing fire and fury. Her speech betrays no peaks of anger or frustration, even as she remembers being called a murderer or returning home to find white crosses planted in her garden.

"To me it's just been me, having a pretty strong sense of right and wrong - fairness. But I've not been afraid to question authority, and I don't think I've gone into it blindly. I think I've realised at some points in my life that if I make a stand on this, like making a public stand on abortion, that will immediately close a whole lot of doors."

As she puts it, she was shamed into action on abortion.

She had returned to Wellington in 1969 to work for Victoria University's student health service. That same year, legal abortion services became available in the Australian state of Victoria.

Desperate young women would come to the clinic pleading for help to get abortions in Australia. Sparrow would turn them away as her profession required. The welfare officer on the student association executive did not. "I thought, this young guy is trying to be so much more helpful to these young women than I, who has a whole salary and a lovely office."

Sparrow began researching reputable services and booking airline tickets and accommodation for these scared young women who had never before left the country.

She trained with Family Planning in 1971 and the association continued throughout her career, until she retired in 2005. The Wellington clinic now bears her name.

In what would become the fight of her life, Sparrow also became a central figure in the burgeoning campaign for safe, legal access to abortion. She was president of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) for more than 30 years all up.

As Shand puts it, "for one long period she was virtually it".

When New Zealand drug companies refused to distribute abortion pill RU-486, Dr Sparrow, Dr Carol Shand and others formed a not-for-profit company to import it. Photo: Haana Howard/Fairfax NZ

Sparrow knew from personal experience that making abortion a crime forced otherwise sensible women to do risky things. 

"I made a conscious decision that you could only help your patients so much without getting involved on the political side." 

So she did. As well as fronting the campaign, she worked behind the scenes, advising the health department and lobbying politicians. Every speech Sparrow made was backed up with science – a legacy of an early job as a medical researcher, Shand says. 

In a 1974 opinion piece in the Salient student magazine, Sparrow warned that abortion was an ideal subject for a crusade. "The tactics are familiar," she wrote. "You belittle the opposition, you overstate your own case, you monopolise the discussion, you only marshal the facts which support your argument and you use all the emotive language at your disposal...the weakness of this approach is that it very often leads to confusion rather than enlightenment." 

Her words proved prophetic. In 1975, at the Royal Commission into abortion law reform, the lawyer for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child made Sparrow read out explicit columns from a liberal sex magazine she was associated with, the goal being to humiliate and discredit her. 

Sparrow sat in parliament when the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed in 1977, confirming abortion as a crime and sanctioning it only if two consultants agreed it was necessary for the mother's mental or physical health. 

It was one of the most despairing moments of her career. "I was so disappointed," she says. "How could rational beings come to such a conclusion?" 

That that situation endures today is still more depressing to her. 

But unlike many pioneers who bemoan feminism's stagnation, she sees hope in the new generation of campaigners. 

"I still have this very optimistic view that eventually people will see the light and abortion will be accepted without the stigma of today as just part of the fabric of life. 

"There's a whole range, from women desperately seeking to get pregnant to women who get pregnant far too easily. We should be compassionate along the whole spectrum." 


Throughout her career in sexual health, Dame Margaret amassed a collection of contraceptives, which she would demonstrate to students. On her retirement she donated almost 1000 items to Te Papa, which is displaying them in a free exhibition in its Ilott Room, until 30 Jan 2016. Dame Margaret's favourite is the contents of a bathroom cabinet handed to her in a brown paper bag. It contained pristine 1950s sex education pamphlets for teenagers, assorted syringes, a "lovely" box of Rendell's Pessaries, dating from the 1930s, a WW2 prophylactic kit and a bottle of abortion pills that a fearful woman had kept handy her entire life in case of unplanned pregnancy.

 - Sunday Magazine


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