Episode 8: Dame Margaret Sparrow

Sep 24, 2020

Podcast transcript


Susie: Kia ora! Welcome to another episode of Brazen, the podcast sharing incredible stories from incredible women. I’m Susie Ferguson, and in this episode we’re going to hear from someone who has been at the forefront of women’s issues for over 50 years.

Dame Margaret Sparrow is practically the reason New Zealand has abortion at all. She fought for it when it was first introduced back in the mid 70s, was the head of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand for 32 years between 1975 and 2011, and was still fighting for it right up until it was removed from the crimes act in March this year.

She’s also been a sex ed teacher, an author and even gave the snip to an uncle of one of the Brazen team! Amazing.

We sat down on the sofas in her living room, and I started by asking what she believes was the turning point, for finally taking abortion out of the crimes act and regulating it as the health issue it is.

Dame Margaret: I think the tipping point was really in that election debate in September/October when Jacinda Ardern was challenged about abortion and came out and said it shouldn’t be in the Crimes Act. And I think that was something that resonated with people. It isn’t a crime. It’s a very common and ordinary medical event.

Susie: Nonetheless, there were so many men and women in parliament who voted against it, the MPs, were you surprised that so many people still held such vehement views about it?

Dame Margaret: Yes. There were 51 who voted against it. And the speeches for those opposed to it were really passionate and dominated the proceedings. And so did the submissions to the select committee, they were completely dominated by those who were opposed to abortion. And I think that our parliament is perhaps not as representative of the general population as we might like to think, even though with MMP we have greater variety. But I think in the general population there was a mood that said, This is not right. It shouldn’t be a crime. This is 19th century law.

Susie: Do you think it came as a bit of a surprise to people that it was still in the Crimes Act?

Dame Margaret: Oh, very much so. Yes. And that’s understandable. I mean, none of us go around knowing all the bits of legislation that there is, and there was no reason why people should, and we’d passed that era where there were lots of criminal cases. Abortion literally being a crime was very common, of course, in our history. And that really changed with the 1977 legislation that I was also involved with. And although we realised that it was not what we wanted, it wasn’t a satisfactory law by any means, and parliament then was much more patriarchal than it is now, and women didn’t have the choice, and rape wasn’t a grounds, all of that was bad. But it got rid of the illegal abortions. For the first time ever it gave doctors a legal pathway to follow. And in the past, the medical profession had ignored abortion as not being, well it was a crime, and doctors didn’t get involved in criminal procedures, and there were abortions done for foetal abnormality or to save a woman’s life, but very few others. So there were illegal practices throughout and then it really was a crime.

Susie: I want to ask you a little bit more about that, but just before we jump into that, you used the word ‘patriarchal’. It almost seems a bit of a surprise to me, as someone who was born in 1977, that men still get a say over what happens in women’s bodies. Does that still shock you?

Dame Margaret: Yes. It does. It’s still there.

Dame Margaret: Although we like to cite that we were the first to have the vote, and we had female prime ministers, and so on, still on boards and in positions of authority, it’s still very much dominated by men.

Susie: It is frustrating? Cause change seems to be happening fairly glacially in terms of speed.

Dame Margaret: Some things change quite quickly, though. Obviously there’s been a groundswell beforehand, but I’m thinking of things like homosexual law reform, for instance, when that came through. There was a lot of buildup to that and there was a lot of stigma and so on, but when the law actually changed, it did help people to move on.

Susie: And marriage equality, I suppose. That came reasonably quickly, I suppose.

Dame Margaret: I think so, yeah.

Susie: You were talking about the illegal practices that grew up, because abortion is not new. This is something that’s happened for thousands of years. I read that you had an abortion, a very long time ago.

Dame Margaret: Yeah. That was a self-abortion, and that was one of the first things that we tried. Not the first. I think when I had an unplanned pregnancy, the first thing you do is all those ridiculous things that people still talk about, like falling down stairs and jumping and skipping

Susie: Hot baths.

Dame Margaret: Yeah, hot baths and gin. Those are the things that you did first of all. One of the funny things I did was I took a whole lot of a product called DeWitt’s Pills, and it turned my urine blue, but it didn’t do anything to the pregnancy.

Susie: Did you throw yourself down the stairs?

Dame Margaret: No, I did not. I did a lot of skipping in the back yard, but I did not throw myself down the stairs.

Susie: When you found out you were pregnant, you were 21?

Dame Margaret: Yeah.

Susie: Were you frightened? Were you scared? Cause I guess, your options when you were 21 were very different to any options I had with an unplanned pregnancy when I was 21. If I’d needed it I could have got an abortion. But a legal one wasn’t an option for you.

Dame Margaret: No. Well you certainly didn’t even go to a doctor about that. That was understood. Neither did you have the advantage that young women have nowadays of doing a pregnancy test. There was no such thing, a pregnancy test. So I knew because my cycles were very regular and I had some of the early warning signs and my husband came from Christchurch and he knew all about a chemist there called George Betel. And George Betel was known in Christchurch – most communities had a pharmacist or a midwife or a practitioner, even some medical practitioners – were known in their community for providing help for women. And my husband just knew that in Christchurch there was a saying, you married for Betel or worse. It was as a common as that. You did have to ask around, you know. If my husband hadn’t known, you would have gone to, I don’t know, your best friend or whatever. You’d have to work out what to do. And I wrote away for his mixture, he sold a mixture. It wasn’t expensive, I think it was three pounds or something like that. And it came in a brown paper parcel and it was one tablespoonful three times a day til you finished the mixture. Goodness knows what was in it.

Susie: I was about to say, do you know what was in it?

Dame Margaret: Absolutely no idea whatsoever. These are the risks that women took in those days. He was a pharmacist, that’s all you knew. And pharmacists had knowledge and wouldn’t be poisoning you, but who knows what was in it.

Susie: How quickly did it work?

Dame Margaret: Quite quickly. More or less as soon as I’d finished the mixture, and I just started bleeding and passed something. I mean, I was at work, it wasn’t a bother, and I was early and it really wasn’t traumatic. Everybody talks about this great trauma, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t traumatic.

Susie: When you, I’m guessing, went to the toilet and, you know, found blood, having taken goodness knows what to cause this to happen, were your relieved?

Dame Margaret: Yeah. And I could see that it wasn’t just clear blood, like a normal menstrual period. There were yellowy flecks in it. I didn’t examine it. But I could see that it was more than just my menstrual period starting again.

Susie: And you flushed the loo.

Dame Margaret: Yeah.

Susie: And you went back to work.

Dame Margaret: Yeah.

Susie: So you go back and you carry on with your work. You didn’t have any pain or any cramps?

Dame Margaret: No, no.

Susie: Gosh, it sounds like whatever was in the mixture was very effective.

Dame Margaret: Yeah. And you can see why now I am involved in bringing in medical abortions for women, because it’s really just the same thing. But sometimes there is heavy bleeding, so you have to warn people. It isn’t a piece of cake.

Susie: I was going to ask you about that, because I have not had an abortion, but I have had a couple of miscarriages and I’m one of those people who bleeds. I’m a bleeder, I’ve been told by doctors. And I suppose that can be quite frightening for people to see, especially if they’re like me not science-trained or medically trained. And taking the morning-after pill, I had quite a painful experience with. But I suppose that sort of abortion, medically induced rather than any kind of surgical procedure must be much easier, much quicker, much safer.

Dame Margaret: Well, I think women should have the choice, and I think you need to explain to them, and it depends a little bit on the stage of the pregnancy too. Obviously I was very early, and I think things are always easier when they’re early. And I think you have to warn people that with some people having a medical abortion is a two-stage procedure. You take the first medication, which stops the progesterone from acting, but doesn’t always expel the foetus, and so you follow it, 24 or 48 hours later, with a prostaglandin, which encourages uterine contractions and expels the products. You have to warn people that that experience can be painful. And also that you need to watch out for heavy bleeding, which doesn’t happen very often but you need to warn people about it. And sometimes it takes a while for that process to happen, and there are women who choose to have a surgical abortion, because they say, Look I’m busy, I have this career, I want it done at 10 o’clock on Friday and that suits me better. And yet there are other people who say, Oh I like the idea of a medical abortion, it seems more like natural, they may have had a miscarriage and have experienced that, and so I think it’s for the woman to decide, when you explain to them what it means. And in most places, more people choose a medical abortion than a surgical abortion, because I think apart from the certainty of it, that it’s going to happen at 10 o’clock on Friday, you’re not doing it yourself. Somebody’s doing something to you, and I think people sometimes have feelings about surgery. So it’s up to women to decide.

Susie: Because you, not only were you involved in the importation of the pills, the medicine for those abortions, you performed surgical abortions as well. What actually happens during a surgical abortion? How do you do it?

Dame Margaret: Well the ones that I did were always early medical abortions in a clinic situation. So that’s very different to a specialist who’s working in a hospital and doing a late termination. When that’s sometimes necessary. So I can tell you what happens with an early medical abortion. It’s often quite a good idea to give people some medication to ease the pain. That’s usually through a vein. And then you have to dilate the cervix. And that can be painful. And then you have to insert a vacuum aspirator, like a tube, which is connected to suction. And then you have to suction out the contents. And it’s a very quick procedure. It doesn’t take very long. In the situation where I was, we always had two nurses, one to assist me and one to assist the patient. So she would be talking through, explaining what’s happening and reassuring, and people wanted to have their own music, that sometimes helped, so to try and make it as comfortable for the woman as possible. But you’re still lying on your back with your legs spread with somebody doing painful things, so it’s not a pleasant procedure. Nobody would say, Oh it’s a piece of cake, it’s no problem at all. But on the other hand, I don’t think we should over-dramatise things. There are lots of people who say it’s always traumatic, it’s always painful and then you have to worry about getting complications. I don’t think we should exaggerate things, but I don’t think we should minimise it either. Everybody’s different. It just depends on the stage you’re at, and people often think about, that it’s hard for young people, but I think young people can cope with the procedure as well.

Susie: Do you know the age of your youngest patient that you ever had to do an abortion?

Dame Margaret: 14 would be the youngest. But mostly we didn’t do them, because of their age they were often sent out of the clinic to the main hospital where they could have a general anaesthetic. So for the majority of 14, 15, and there are not many, they’re very unusual, but for the majority of 14 or 15 year olds, or anybody who was extremely distressed for whatever reason, and whatever age, sometimes it would be recommended that they have a general anaesthetic because even though they have a support person there, and with young ones the mother could be there if they had the support of the mother, but generally speaking we didn’t allow other people into the room because it’s not an environment where anybody other than a medical professional would feel really comfortable. But occasionally that seemed the most appropriate thing to do.

Susie: How many abortions have you done? Do you have any idea?

Dame Margaret: Thousand, yeah.

Susie: Do any of them stick in your mind?

Dame Margaret: Yes. Always the ones where something went wrong and you had to admit them to hospital, and I suppose the very worst one for me was I cause a perforation once where you go through the uterine wall. Yes, you always remember when things go wrong.

Susie: When you opened the clinic, or indeed while the clinic was open, did you have protesters?

Dame Margaret: Yes, yes.

Susie: What kind of things did people say to you as you went to work?

Dame Margaret: They’d show gory pictures of late terminations. Or they’d shout abuse like murderer. Or they’d pray for you. And sometimes they would have great big grand events where there’d be huge numbers and placards and WONAAC, that’s the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign, they were wonderful. They had a telephone tree, and if they knew that there were going to be protesters there they would come and counter-protest. Which added of course more bodies to the goings on outside the clinic, but it was good to also have their support. So sometimes, in the 80s particularly, there was a lot of protesting. I’d drive there and always think, I wonder what I’m going to see today. Is it going to be two usually elderly gentlemen holding their posters over the fence, because they weren’t allowed on the property, or is it going to be one of these mass demos that they occasionally put on. And also it went on outside the clinic as well. I had little crosses planted down in my garden and I’d have people on that traffic island holding posters.

Susie: So outside your house as well.

Dame Margaret: Yeah, yeah. I suppose the worst thing was my neighbour next door noticed a truck driver with a load of concrete wanting to load some wet concrete on my driveway, where your car is parked. And she knew that I worked at Family Planning on a Friday morning, and she rang and said, Margaret, you haven’t ordered any wet concrete have you? I said, Certainly not. So she went down and stopped them.

Susie: Having that level of intrusion at home as well as at work, did you ever get things like death threats?

Dame Margaret: Only once, only once. And it was not a serious threat. So I never needed police protection, and certainly I never needed a bulletproof vest like they do in the States. I think we’re lucky here.

Susie: Nonetheless, though, having that level of disruption and protest in your life, at your work, at your home, did it rattle you?

Dame Margaret: Yes. Yes. But I always had support and always had good support networks. And often you’d find that it wasn’t targeted just at me. Like, all my neighbours here were leafleted saying, Did you know that the property of your house has gone down several thousand dollars because of Margaret Sparrow? But my friend Carol, Dr Carol Shand, had the same thing happen to her. Her neighbours were leafleted as well.

Susie: Just for living next door to you.

Dame Margaret: Yeah.

Susie: Even when you’re happy enough with what you’re doing, you’re not finding it traumatic, the women involved are not finding it traumatic, that amount of intrusion and, I don’t quite know what the right word is, but that level of other people’s unwelcome interest in your life and your work seems like quite a burden to carry. Was it a burden to carry?

Dame Margaret: Yes. I think the main thing I was concerned about was protecting my two children. I didn’t like them answering the phone. Because sometimes you got abusive calls, and I didn’t want them to have to deal with that.

Susie: How did you explain it to your children? What you did.

Dame Margaret: Well they knew that Mum was involved. I would go to political meetings and sometimes I would be in the press and whatever, so they knew what Mum was involved in. And my mother was here at the time. And she supported what I did.

Susie: I guess that must have made it easier, but like you say, when you’ve got people at your home and you’ve got your children maybe asking questions or you having to explain to them, I can see that that would be pretty stressful to deal with.

Dame Margaret: Yes. But I still felt that it was worthwhile.

Susie: What was it like for you growing up? Is it something that you were taught, or what were you taught about sex?

Dame Margaret: Absolutely nothing. I was of that generation where you didn’t mention sex. It was no-no, and keep your legs closed, and be a good girl. And when I started my first period I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I must have cut myself or something. And my mother soon found out and told me. And when I discovered masturbation I thought, It’s amazing that nobody ever told me about this. Why would people not talk to you about something? So I thought that I must have discovered something new. Because if it really was such a lovely feeling, everybody would have talked about it. So I thought, obviously they don’t, I must have really discovered something new.

Susie: How old were you?

Dame Margaret: Oh, I suppose I was 11, something like that.

Susie: Who did you tell?

Dame Margaret: I told one of my cousins, and it didn’t make any sense to her.

Susie: Was she older or younger, do you remember?

Dame Margaret: She was about the same age as me. I don’t know what she’s talking about.

Susie: And so, it is that curiosity. Where you shouldn’t touch yourself, but then you do, and realise that it’s this extraordinary thing. But then everyone disavows it and oh no no no, we don’t do that, I don’t do that, wouldn’t do that. Apart from boys, they do that.

Dame Margaret: And the dictionary wasn’t any help. Self-pleasure, self-abuse, I learned the words through going to the dictionary, but it didn’t really tell me anything.

Susie: So once you worked out what it was, and you tried telling your cousin, what did you think? Oh well, I’ll just carry on, I suppose.

Dame Margaret: Yeah. I do know one thing, that I identify very strongly with some of the better-known sex educators. Cause when you look back, they’ve been brought up like I was, no sex. No information. If you look at the history of somebody like Marie Stopes, she was worse than me. When she got married, she didn’t know what was wrong with her marriage. She knew that something wasn’t right. And so she went to the British Museum Library and looked up all the books and couldn’t work it out. And then an elderly friend helped her to realise that the marriage had never even been consummated. I wasn’t as deeply ignorant as that, but then she went on to write the most famous book in England, Married Love, telling people what it was like.

Susie: Marie Stopes is a, she’s quite a divisive character. She actually went, we went to the same school in Scotland, funnily enough. But the school would never talk about her. Because of the eugenics which obviously is deeply problematic. But nonetheless, there are of course still Marie Stopes clinics in the UK. She’s one of those difficult characters, because of that, what she did in some ways was so astonishing and so forward-thinking, and in so many other ways is so awful. It’s really, it’s quite hard to reconcile her legacy, isn’t it? How do you see her?

Dame Margaret: I see her as making a tremendous contribution, but I also think she was arrogant, I think she was very self-centred. The last years of her life was very unstable. Didn’t endear her to people. But she made a wonderful contribution to many women’s lives through letting women know that you have got a clitoris, and you can experience pleasure rather than just being a passive person in this relationship.

Susie: One of my friends recently tweeted a picture, without saying what it was, saying, Who can guess what this is? And there were so many wrong answers. And it was a diagram of the clitoris. People didn’t know what it was. And I suppose this is one of the things that I, I keep kind of coming back to this idea that, how do people know how to find pleasure if they don’t understand their bodies? And do we need to all become a bit more comfortable with the idea that human beings have these parts to them, and it’s not shameful, it’s not weird, it’s not, it’s maybe not for public, but, depending on how comfortable you are with these things.

Dame Margaret: But even as a doctor, you know, I concentrated on sexually transmitted diseases and all the negative things. You don’t talk to people about pleasure.

Susie: Did anyone ask you about it, when you were a doctor?

Dame Margaret: Yes, sometimes. I got quite involved in marital relationships. Even simple things like a man saying, My wife loves sex, we have a different level of sex drive. From simple things like that to real problems. But it was very interesting in the 70s because then that was the time we were allowed for the first time to talk about orgasms and so on, it became easier to talk about it.

Susie: And did women then come to see you and say, I’ve heard about this thing, how do I do it? And what was your advice?

Dame Margaret: I’d usually give them good books to read. And I had a selection of them, because in a seven-minute consultation you can’t do a lot, but you can be accepting of what they say and you can point them in the right direction or there might be courses, or you might be able to recommend, even if you don’t do it yourself, you can recognise the problem, you can steer them in the right direction.

Susie: Do you think one of the things that is problematic now is the messages we get from places, and a lot of people seem to be, perhaps particularly teenagers, kids, seem to be getting their sex education through porn, women are sort of hypersexualised in imagery, and it’s impossible to live up to. What do you think that’s doing to human sexuality and the pleasure that it should sort of be about, in the main?

Dame Margaret: I think there’s a conflict, isn’t there, because our private life is very much our private life. And to a certain extent we’re more comfortable keeping it private. And I don’t want to talk about whatever I’m dealing with at the moment, except to perhaps a few trusted people. It’s not something that you shout to the world about. And I think there’s still a respect for privacy and intimacy that doesn’t translate to everywhere else. So it’s quite difficult to know when you’re being protective or secretive or closed-in or repressed, and how much of that is genuine privacy. So I think there’s a conflict there. But you’re right, and even as doctors, we’re not always open to discussing things. I can remember I came away from a sexual health conference and I was sitting in the airport with a friend, colleague, and I said, Do you realise that we’ve just spent three days talking about safer sex and nobody mentioned the word masturbation once?

Susie: Surely it’s the safest form.

Dame Margaret: And she looked at me, and she said, “Well Margaret, you didn’t get up and ask a question, or make a comment.” So I thought, touché. So the next time we were having a conference, I read up all about it and it’s a fascinating history, and I had lots of pictures and things, and so I offered this presentation at the next conference. Well. It wasn’t acceptable. There are more important things on the program. So it was rejected. The next year, the following year, we were the organising committee. So to cut a long story short, we did, and I think it was one of the more successful presentations that I’d ever done. And I can also say that there was never a sexual health conference from then onwards where the word masturbation didn’t come up a least once.

Susie: You mentioned the MeToo movement as well, a little bit earlier on. What’s your take on that as that’s all unfolded over the last couple of years?

Dame Margaret: It’s about time. It’s been going on for a long, long time. And it’s just given people the courage, the ability to be able to talk about some of these very personal things.

Susie: We might get there one day. The name of the podcast is Brazen. I think that means different things to different women at different stages of their lives, perhaps. What does it say to you?

Dame Margaret: It recalls back to my childhood and it would always be associated with brazen hussies. That was my introduction to brazen.

Susie: Would you describe yourself as brazen? Perhaps not in that respect, but more generally?

Dame Margaret: I’m a mixture, really. There’s parts of me that are very conservative, and parts of me that are totally way out there liberal.

Susie: Just as we finish, we’ve talked for a very long time and thank you very much, is there a question that you’ve ever wanted to answer, a viewpoint that you’ve ever wanted to give but you’ve never been asked?

Dame Margaret: I mean, most people don’t ask me about how you did your abortion. That’s usually a shut-off thing. They don’t usually pick it up and run with it, at all. But the same with sex education and masturbation.

Susie: We should talk about that stuff more, maybe.

Dame Margaret: I think so.

Susie: Now that is one of the original Brazen women, Dame Margaret Sparrow.

In the next episode of Brazen, which is also out now, we hear from Deborah Small, a US lawyer and activist who’s fighting the war ON the war on Drugs…

Deborah Small: So I find it particularly perverse and hypocritical that we would have a war on drugs, as a country that built its wealth on drugs.

Susie: As always, you can subscribe to Brazen in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts – do that if you haven’t already and while you’re doing it, maybe flick us a review!

Keep visiting the website – www.brazen.world – for more content

Brazen is hosted by me, Susie Ferguson, and was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic MacLennan, and David Cormack.

Brazen is edited by Melody Thomas, and engineered by William Saunders.

The theme is “Be Who You Are” by Edie

Artwork by Pepper Raccoon

And transcriptions done by Emma Hart.

Episode 8: Dame Margaret Sparrow

Episode 8 is with Dame Margaret Sparrow.

Dame Margaret has been at the forefront of the abortion reform battle in New Zealand since it began.

She fought for it when it was first introduced back in the mid 70s, was the head of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand for 32 years between 1975 and 2011, and was still fighting for it right up until it was removed from the crimes act in March this year.

She’s also been a sex ed teacher, an author and even gave the snip to an uncle of one of the Brazen team!

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