Bestselling novelist Catherine Robertson honours Dame Margaret June Sparrow, who has spent something like 50 years working to secure safe, legal abortions in Aotearoa.
This is the first section of an essay from Nine Lives, a new collection from Upstart Press in which local writers honour remarkable New Zealanders.
After my 21st birthday and before the advent of seven-digit phone numbers, I was given a local anaesthetic and a foetus was aspirated out of my womb.
The abortionist was Dr Margaret Sparrow. She resembled her name, small and fine-boned, not an ounce of fat. A puff of wind would blow her away, my mother might have said, but I found Dr Sparrow intimidating. Her manner was formal. She did not smile and delivered the necessary information to me with a cool detachment. I assessed her age as very old (she was 52), and I knew nothing about her except that she worked here, at Parkview Clinic, and had appeared on TV advocating for a woman’s right to choose. I thought feminists were aggressive and abortion was only for girls who’d been stupid. I lay on the operating table and Dr Sparrow did to me, “within the framework of New Zealand law” what she had done illegally to herself when she was my age.
In her book Abortion Then & Now, Margaret Sparrow describes 1956 as “an eventful year. In chronological order, I was married, was nearly killed in a car crash, graduated BSc, had my first job as a research assistant, turned 21, got pregnant, and had an abortion.”
There is a photo of young Margaret at her graduation ceremony at the Wellington Town Hall. Her academic gown falls over a shimmery formal dress. She holds her degree scroll and a posy of flowers, and she is gorgeous, bright-faced, smiling. “You are looking at a criminal,” she tells us.
Except on medical grounds, abortion is a crime warns a 1944 advertisement from the Department of Health. Inducing your own abortion could see you sent to prison for up to seven years. In 1937, the McMillan report on abortion estimated that 6000 abortions – one in five pregnancies – were performed in New Zealand every year, and of those, 4000 were illegal. We had one of the highest death rates from abortion in the world.
The 1944 advertisement puts the number of illegal abortions at 4600 a year. Government officials chose not to consider why women might want to have an abortion but decided instead to shame and frighten them: This is a threat to the future of our nation. Every woman who lends herself to criminal abortion risks sterility, sepsis and death. The advertisement’s last words are: Let the new life be born!
Near Paraparaumu, there’s a sign on someone’s outbuilding. It has been there for over 50 years, since I was a child. It says Abortion stops a beating heart. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child with its acronym like an angry spit, SPUC, was formed in 1970 and anti-abortion protesters used to hang around the entrance to Parkview Clinic.
When I arrived at Parkview, I saw no protesters. But then, I don’t remember how I got there. By taxi, most likely; my mother and my boyfriend were both at work. The entire visit appears to me in a series of images, a slideshow on an old projector. Whirr-click – the blue vinyl chairs in the waiting room; I’m in a corner nearest the window that lets in only a little light, the rest of the room appears to be in darkness. Whirr-click – my notebook; I’m writing a humorous article about jeans for the magazine I work for, my boss, the editor, is always scrambling to meet tight deadlines and she needs this piece done. Whirr-click – Margaret Sparrow’s face bending over me; I’m on the operating table. The clinic’s information form says my feet may have to be in stirrups. During the operation I must lie with my legs open.
Some certifying consultants appear to be of the view that it was a waste of their time to perform abortions when women were not prepared to take responsibility for preventing an unintended pregnancy.
– Abortion Services in New Zealand: a report prepared for the Women, Children and Family Health Programme to aid in planning and policy formulation, 1987.
Margaret and her husband Peter were studying medicine in Dunedin. When they married, Margaret’s student living allowance was withdrawn because husbands were expected to provide for their wives. They barely had enough money to cover their own living costs.
The newly-weds had been using the most common contraception available – a diaphragm. To have it fitted, Margaret needed to provide proof that she was going to be married. Single women could not be prescribed contraception; it was considered unethical. She and Peter were too poor to afford an engagement ring, so she cut out her marriage notice from the Fendalton Parish magazine and took it along. The diaphragm failed. Margaret was pregnant.
“The first thing you do is all the silly things,” she told a journalist in 2015. “The old wives’ tales – jumping, skipping, exercise. Then I took a bottle of DeWitt’s Pills. All that did was turn my urine blue.”
Peter, Margaret’s husband, knew of a chemist in Christchurch who sold “personal products” by mail. This was George Bettle, Everybody’s Chemist, as it said in his advertisements. The bottle arrived in a brown paper bag. Its typewritten label simply said: “The Mixture. Take one tablespoon full three times daily.” Margaret took her medicine and had an early miscarriage.
Abortifacients have been ingested by women for as long as people have recorded such remedies. In the 11th century, Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber simplicis medicinae recommended tansy to restore menstruation, and a herbal of the day listed rue, soapwort, black hellebore and the botanical that persisted, pennyroyal. Two tablespoons of pennyroyal essential oil killed a woman in Colorado in 1978. In the 20th century, women were desperate enough to down turpentine, detergent and, presaging Covid-quackery, bleach. If the remedies by mouth did not work, solutions of soap, disinfectant, turpentine were squirted into the uterus. Potassium permanganate, a chemical compound developed in 1857 as a disinfectant, was placed in the vagina.
When Margaret induced her own abortion, New Zealand followed British law, set in 1938 when the case of R. v Bourne decided that a 14-year-old girl who’d been raped would be mentally damaged if she was forced to have the baby. The judge stated that a doctor could justify performing an abortion if they were certain that “the probable consequence of the continuance of the pregnancy is to make the mother a physical or emotional wreck”.
A physical wreck. Potassium permanganate in the vagina caused severe chemical burns. Oral remedies led to kidney failure and poisoning. Douching caused death by air embolism, with heart stoppage due to cervical shock.
Some of the young women who came to George Bettle for help said he sexually assaulted them. He committed suicide in 1964 while on remand for a charge of supplying the means to procure illegal abortions. He brought about his own death by drinking a bottle of poison.
Margaret had no side effects from George Bettle’s Mixture other than the early miscarriage. She did not have to resort to finding an illegal abortionist. She did not have a knitting needle, bent coat hanger, crochet hook, twig, ballpoint pen, chicken bone or bicycle spoke pushed through her cervix. No rubber catheter, bicycle pump nozzle or enema syringe. She was not at risk of dying of gas gangrene poisoning or toxaemia from peritonitis caused by a septic abortion. Before antibiotics, once you went into septic shock, there was no hope. The women could not breathe, they haemorrhaged, their organs failed. By 1956, antibiotics had greatly reduced the death rate but only if the woman sought medical help early enough. Abortion was not only illegal but also carried such social stigma that, as Margaret said, “We didn’t talk about it even to best friends.” A young woman who died from a botched abortion in 1959 never told her parents that she was pregnant. They wished she’d felt able to confide in them.
When I realised I was pregnant, I told my mother. My father was an odd man and we weren’t close. Besides, he would have had no clue what to say or do. My mother had problems of her own. She was two years away from leaving my father and had not had emotional time for me since I was 13. But this is a story for another day. When I told her, my mother was surprised – I was a quiet rule-follower, had never caused any trouble. I’d been sexually active since I was 16 and had never had any “accidents”. My boyfriend was a nice young man, but he and I had been going out less than six months. We were only 21, said my mother. I’d have to quit my job, and my boyfriend was still at university. Surely, we could not manage – emotionally or practically – a baby in our lives. She wouldn’t press us, however. It was up to us. Up to me.
My mother hadn’t been there for me for years, but she came through in that moment. I made a decision.
Nine Lives: New Zealand writers on notable New Zealanders (Upstart Press, $39.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
This essay was first published on The Spinoff in November 2021.