Comment

Sparrow still fighting, still pushing

The Law Commission is to present its recommendations to the Government on abortion within a month. Reproductive rights campaigner Dame Margaret Sparrow tells Sasha Borissenko why it’s time abortion is seen as a health issue and not something for the Crimes Act.

Dame Margaret Sparrow’s drive for promoting women’s reproductive freedoms - that fire in her belly - is still the same as it ever was. She's worked on the frontlines for decades, having brought the emergency contraception pill to New Zealand, pioneered the first vasectomy clinic in Wellington, and was one of the first women in the country to try the oral contraceptive pill.    

The Law Commission is about to present its review of abortion laws to the Government by the end of October. Currently, an abortion can be granted on the grounds a pregnancy is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother; there is a substantial risk the child will be seriously disabled; the pregnancy was the result of incest; or that the woman is deemed to be “severely subnormal” mentally. Nowhere is sexual violence mentioned in one of the grounds. 

Sparrow, aged 83,  wants abortion, and more specifically the grounds - which are discriminatory and unjustified, she says - removed from the Crimes Act, and all other legislation.

The hurdles, which include the need to have two certifying consultants, and the law overseen by an abortion supervisory committee, should also be removed, she says.

“It’s quite simple. It comes down to access, and it should be the choice of the woman, not a stranger, to make that decision. The more hurdles, the more waiting times and therefore more risks. We should be promoting early, safe abortions."

“It’s quite simple. It comes down to access, and it should be the choice of the woman, not a stranger, to make that decision. The more hurdles, the more waiting times and therefore more risks. We should be promoting early, safe abortions.”

Another issue arises where doctors can exercise conscientious objection. Where a doctor is opposed to abortions or contraception, the minimum requirement is to tell patients they need to get advice elsewhere. This doesn’t include making a referral.

“I don’t approve of the current situation. I think doctors should be quite open if they’re not willing to provide these services. This needs to be made obvious before patients go to their appointment.

“It is absolutely an access issue. It takes time to make an appointment. You go for that appointment. You pay. They say they won’t do it. Then you have to shop around and go through the process again.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressly said abortion law reform is on the agenda, but it’s likely to come down to a conscience vote. “There’s no way of knowing whether we’re going to get anywhere. The only party that is pro-choice is the Green Party.”

There’s been a conservative resurgence internationally in recent years that’s very vocal, and very powerful, she says.

Sparrow is referring to the imminent US Supreme Court justice appointment, which is projected to be conservative and pro-life. Fears have emerged around the potential reversal of landmark abortion case Roe v Wade, for example.

“I do think there is a difference in early abortion and late abortion. But in fact, there’s such a big emphasis on the 20-week cut-off but that only makes up one to two percent of cases. Pro-life advocates put more emphasis on the foetus than I would. I think we lose a lot of early fertilised eggs naturally. In fact over 50 percent never come to fruition because there are all sorts of hazards along the way.”

Carrying out abortions throughout Sparrow’s career has had its risks, but none that could be compared to what doctors face in the US, she says. 

“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve never had to wear a bullet-proof vest.

“The only real scare was when I was working at Family Planning and my neighbour, Helen, rang me, which was out of the ordinary. I thought I better take the phone call thinking my house was obviously on fire, or something. She said, ‘Margaret, there’s a concrete mixer at the bottom of your driveway and they’re planning to unload some wet concrete on your driveway. I thought I better give you a bell because it seemed strange’. I said, ‘heavens no, stop them!’

“The chap in the truck was very good, though, he told Helen, ‘Oh, I see what’s gone on here, it’s usually jilted lovers.”

Sparrow has spent her life advocating women’s reproductive rights because she came from a generation that didn’t have sex education or contraception, and had to resort to unsafe and illegal abortions, which often led to death.

“I think I know in my bones what it’s like not to have these advantages. I grew up in a very loving home and sex was never mentioned. I was surprised when I had my period. I remember being absolutely astonished when I discovered masturbation. I thought why hasn’t somebody told me about this? Incredible."

In the 1940s, abortion contributed to one-quarter of maternal deaths, and New Zealand had one of the highest rates of abortion in the world, for example. 

“I think I know in my bones what it’s like not to have these advantages. I grew up in a very loving home and sex was never mentioned. I was surprised when I had my period. I remember being absolutely astonished when I discovered masturbation. I thought why hasn’t somebody told me about this? Incredible.”

Being one of 12 women in a medical class of 110 students, it was only once she graduated from medical school and was on the other side of the doctor’s desk that she decided to pursue reproductive health.

“I performed an illegal [self] abortion when I was younger, like a lot of women in those days. I remember getting a brown bag with a mixture in it that I had to source illegally. It was a black mixture, there was probably some iron in there. I had a heavy period. I knew I had passed something more, but I carried on with my work. I could have gone to prison for seven years.

“Women were very vulnerable. They either had to practise abstinence, have children beyond their capacity, or potentially die by completing unsafe illegal abortions. It was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Contraception back then was unreliable, she says, and having had two children despite using a diaphragm, Sparrow went to great lengths to bring the emergency contraceptive pill New Zealand.

“I’ve never invented anything, I just picked up what was available overseas and used it, I don’t have an inventive mind.”

In fact, she was one of the first women in the country to use the oral contraceptive pill.

“My husband was in general practice. He came home with some pill samples and threw them on the table. I thought, ‘shall we try this?’ I lived on free samples for a while there.

“Women were very vulnerable. They either had to practise abstinence, have children beyond their capacity, or potentially die by completing unsafe illegal abortions. It was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

“I shouldn’t be saying this. But, I was the ideal candidate, really. I was young, I was fertile, I had my two children, and I was married. Marriage was the important signifier in those days. I had everything going for me. If I had gone to a doctor I would have easily qualified.”

Hurdles are rife in the reproductive and medical business, she says.

“I think it’s a safety thing. I think the medical profession is fairly conservative, because you don’t want to be changing your practice with every whim and new treatment that comes along.

“Even treatments have come along that have proven to be harmful years later. Thalidomide is an example. We used to give that to women for morning sickness and it caused deformities and so on, even despite the research at the time.”

While Sparrow is widely known for her reproductive health work for women, she also introduced the vasectomy service to New Zealand.

It was 1975, and Sparrow was completing further qualifications in London when her mentor suggested she try doing vasectomies. Unable to operate in England, she completed her practical experience in Bombay, India while en route to New Zealand.

“I completed my first vasectomy on a converted bus - no it wasn’t moving - in a slum, in Bombay.

“When they hopped off the table we gave them a hundred rupees, a little packet of antibiotics to stop infections, and a nappy of sorts. Some of them came in just for the money. The first thing I had to do was to recognise a previously done vasectomy, which was a skill I never needed before. Who’d of thunk it?!”

Some forty years later, Sparrow says while there’s still a long way to go, she says, “it’s nice to think that I’ve made somewhat of a difference”.

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