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Emma Espiner: A fierce and frank fight for women’s health

Emma Espiner is overcome with gratitude at a talk by reproductive health pioneer Dame Margaret Sparrow, whose life's work directly benefitted her generation 

It's not every day an 82-year-old woman tells an audience about learning to masturbate. But Dame Margaret Sparrow isn't your average 82-year-old woman. After listening to her speak at Wellington's LitCrawl festival it's clear she isn't an average anything; she is one of the most extraordinary living New Zealanders.

I'm off to a talk about abortion, I told my husband. We were on holiday in Wellington and I'd stumbled onto the LitCrawl programme, a festival of the literary arts which has been running in the capital city since 2014. We have both missed Wellington; for me it's the cultural scene, not necessarily better than Auckland, but of a vastly different character. For him it’s the running paths, Red Rocks and the South Coast.

So he went for a run and I went off to the abortion talk.

Except it wasn't really about abortion. Sure, there was the abortion book she'd written - Risking their Lives, the third in a series about the history of abortions in New Zealand - but mostly it was about Margaret Sparrow. And the more I learned about Margaret the more I realised I shouldn't just be listening to her, I should be thanking her, applauding her, and taking notes about how to be more like her.

Nobody ever does anything on their own, of course, and Sparrow's emancipation from the predicted life course for a woman born in the 1930s came in the form of education. If it wasn't for the scholarships she'd won to attend university, Sparrow said, she would have married a local farmer and gotten very good at making scones. Her life has been fortuitously sprinkled with strong women - she cites a head teacher at high school (an unusual place to find a woman in a teaching role at all, back then), a family full of them, and a kindred spirit in fellow women’s and sexual health advocate Dr Carol Shand.

Sparrow’s frankness, which I’d found startling and pretty cool in an older woman – a Dame, no less – is something that’s cost her in the past.

Embarrassment crept up on me. Not about the masturbation story (although I admit that was somewhat confronting) but about my ignorance of the gains achieved by Sparrow's health advocacy work which have directly benefitted me and my generation. She casually recounted her efforts to provide sexual health education to adolescents in an unimaginably - to me - socially conservative New Zealand, including the fact she was one of the first women to take the oral contraceptive pill and one of the first doctors to prescribe the emergency contraceptive pill. Fun fact: in 1961, when it was brought in, the 'Pill' was only available to married women. Look up the 'Mazengarb' report if you want to know why. She told us how she took an abortion-inducing elixir, having acquired it by mail order catalogue and then founded a non-profit with Shand to import a medical abortion pill when nobody else would supply it.

When a woman in the audience, clearly overcome by gratitude for this health pioneer in the same way I was, raised a hand and offered her thanks on behalf of the women of New Zealand, Dame Margaret said "not just women, I've done thousands of vasectomies too!".

Sparrow’s frankness, which I’d found startling and pretty cool in an older woman – a Dame, no less – is something that’s cost her in the past. SPUC, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, used it against her at the Royal Commission for Abortion Law Reform in 1975. A profile of Sparrow in the Fairfax Sunday magazine from 2015 recounts how the lawyer representing SPUC forced her to read out passages from a liberal sex publication she had been linked with to undermine her expert testimony. I’d forgotten that SPUC even existed, despite them being a landmark of sorts for our family. We spent a lot of time driving from Wellington to Levin when I was growing up. Landmarks included the secondhand bookstore in Pukerua Bay, the McDonald's in the converted train carriage, the giant statue of Mary and when you got to the SPUC billboard you knew we were nearly at Te Horo and from there it wasn’t too far to Nanny and Koro’s place. I digress.

There are still women in New Zealand who can’t get an abortion and it’s more likely to be the group who are on the receiving end of all the wrong sorts of privileges: poverty, lack of education, ill health, abuse.

We eventually got to abortion law reform near the end of the talk. It’s topical, after all. Jacinda Ardern said in the election debates that abortion shouldn’t be in the Crimes Act, and she has reiterated her support for reform since becoming Prime Minister.

I am something of a cautious activist. As much as I respect our legislators (not always that much, to be honest) I am always wary about the unintended consequences of law reform, especially with respect to issues that attract conscience votes. A conscience vote inspires some MPs to cite the ‘views of their community’ as an excuse. See: marriage equality. When, by definition, a conscience vote should dictate that you are responsible only to your own conscience. No, I’m not naïve and yes, I do understand that MPs with conservative constituencies have an eye on their future electoral prospects but it’s odd that we let them get away with this line when it’s a contradiction in terms. For myself, I absolutely support a woman's right to have an abortion, but I'd heard some persuasive arguments of the 'if it ain't broke' variety around the existing system. From an access perspective, this argument says, despite the imperfect application of an imperfect law - is there any woman in New Zealand who can't get an abortion if she asks for one?

On that matter, Dame Margaret Sparrow is unequivocal. Law reform is essential for three reasons: equity, truth and justice. Equity - "abortion has always been available for rich women”. That answers my question; there are still women in New Zealand who can’t get an abortion and it’s more likely to be the group who are on the receiving end of all the wrong sorts of privileges: poverty, lack of education, ill health, abuse. Truth - Sparrow says that 98 percent of abortions in New Zealand are justified on mental health grounds. Do we really believe that almost 100 percent of requests for abortions should be granted because of the risk the pregnancy poses to the mental health of the mother? According to Sparrow, the only reason abortions occur at all in New Zealand is because doctors interpret the law liberally. Bluntly, we require them to lie in order to provide something that women need. Finally, justice. "It’s unfortunate that politicians can exert their conscience, but women can't."

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