'I Know What it's Like': The 80-Something Abortion Pioneer Who Just Won't Quit
Once, a load of wet cement was dumped on her driveway. It did not dissuade her.
All photos by Virginia Woods-Jack
Dame Margaret Sparrow was 21 when she carried out her DIY 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 her book Abortion: Then & Now.
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."
I know what it's like to feel trapped.
Margaret, then a young student, was fortunate: Fatalities from illegal abortion were not unusual at that time. Women died from complications such as the toxic effects of home-made potions, sudden hemorrhages or infection from back alley procedures, and cervical shock from self-injury.
Instead she went on to lead the campaign for reproductive rights in New Zealand, gaining a medical degree and becoming one of the first doctors in the country to provide the emergency contraceptive pill and train as an abortion doctor. And in 2009, the title of Dame was bestowed upon her for services to medicine and the community. She also had two children.
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Her own abortion experience has never been her primary motivation, but it does form the background to Margaret's work—which, at the age of 81, she shows no signs of quitting. "I've been there; I've been to that place, done what I wanted to do, and even though it was illegal in my time I did it," she says now.
"I have a deep-down feeling that I know what it's like to feel like you're trapped, and it's up to you to do something about it."
At a time when most her age have stepped back from public life, this pioneering reproductive rights campaigner is still the director of Istar Ltd, the company she formed with three other doctors to import French medical abortion pill RU-486 (mifepristone) into the country, when no other pharmaceutical company would touch it. She still fronts interviews for the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, of which she was president for 32 years.
The reason is simple; Dame Margaret does not feel her work is done.
In New Zealand, women can not legally decide for themselves to have an abortion. The procedure sits under the Crimes Act, and is considered legal only if two certifying consultants agree the woman's health is at risk. Around 98 percent of today's abortions are performed on the grounds that the pregnancy endangers the mental health of the mother.
Margaret fronted the campaign to legalise abortion in the 70s. What eventuated was an 1977 amendment to the law that confirmed abortion as a crime—but opened up the health-risk loophole through which abortions are provided today. It has remained the same ever since.
Women in New Zealand are rarely, if ever, denied abortions. They are fairly easy to access—notwithstanding the cost, and the time spent on multiple doctors appointments—and paid for under the public health system. "The fact women can get abortions in New Zealand is great," says Margaret, "but the fact they still have to jump through hoops is not. Our laws are ridiculous, and we still have a long way to go."
"It is really in the woman's domain, that's why I think there has been little progress. It's really just a lack of trust in women, [doubt] that we can make these decisions. I very, very strongly believe that when you are in that situation you're the one who has to live with it for the rest of your life, and you're the best one to make that decision, not the state-funded doctor."
Margaret's career began in 1969 at the Student Health Service at Victoria University in Wellington, where she found many young women required access to abortion, which was unavailable.
I just think you have to be practical about these kinds of things.
At first she viewed these requests through the lens of her own experience. "I sort of thought, 'You don't come to a doctor for that—you just do what I did.'" But she soon realised her patients needed her help, an ethos that has pervaded her work ever since. It's why she travelled to London in 1976, to train in sexual transmitted diseases and learn how to provide abortions and vasectomies.
On her return to New Zealand she introduced a vasectomy service at Wellington Family Planning, worked as a venereologist at the Wellington Sexual Health Service, and became an operating doctor at the Parkview abortion clinic.
In conversation Margaret is matter-of-fact. "In the days before we had proper abortion services it was just straight out terrible what happened to women from a medical point of view," she says. "I just think you have to be practical about these kinds of things."
Read more: How to Run a Back-alley Abortion Service
This rationality, she says, might be one of her faults. "I've never been on the attack. I could have been more stroppy, I admire people who can do that, but it's not my style—I've always tried to work within the system.
"It was more important to be in the theatre doing the operations than out on the streets with a billboard. I thought it was just as political to be in there doing things or changing things from my own perspective, which of course was medical."
There was staunch opposition to Dame Margaret's work, and she faced regular verbal abuse. Once, a load of wet cement was dumped on her driveway. It did not dissuade her or the three other female doctors, who had a strong bond fused by sitting together after each surgery to debrief over a cp of tea.
"Yes, there were protestors, but I've always felt very strongly that the need is there, and that it's a woman's right to be in control of her own fertility. If you can't control when and how many children you have, it's hard to control other things," she says.
"I know there's a small minority out there that think what I do is evil, but they're entitled to their own opinion. I know there are lots of people out there who pray for me, hoping I'll end my ways.
"But I also know there's 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.'"