Sex, drugs and country dancing
Amy Jackman talks to Dame Margaret Sparrow about abortion, Scottish country dancing and performing vasectomies in Bombay
What was Taranaki like when you were growing up?
I grew up on a farm. There was a lot of rain and mud. The farm was next to the beach, so there was a lot of swimming. It was quite a popular beach and there would always be a lot of campers parked up by the sea in the summer holidays.
You moved to Wellington in the 1950s to attend university.
No members of my family had been to university, so I really didn’t have a clue what university was, but I found it all very exciting. I went to Victoria University. I was a fairly conscientious student and concentrated more on passing my exams than having a great time.
I found it challenging with all the extra things you do while at university. You question all the ideals you have learnt so far in your life. It is also a great place to try out new things.
Were there many females in the classes?
I did science and we were definitely in the minority, but there was a greater minority in my medical class at Otago. In the class of 100 only 10 were female.
How did you get into medicine?
It was a man I met. I had a year between studying science and studying medicine because I ended up in a traffic accident and fractured my pelvis. I had to lie in hospital for a long time waiting for it to heal. When I was discharged it was too late to start the academic year so I got a job as a research assistant to the professor of surgery. He said to me, ‘‘What are you doing science for?’’ So I decided to do medicine.
Why did sexual health become a focus?
I had a student health job at Victoria University and saw there was a gap in the service. I had students on the other side of the desk asking for contraception, but there was a ruling by the medical association that it was unethical to prescribe the pill for unmarried women. So most of the students would go up the hill to another doctor. I got in touch with Family Planning and they gave me a lot of support. I introduced the morning-after pill. I also got into abortion because I had students who needed help.
Was it easy to get an abortion in the early 1970s?
There was very little chance of getting an abortion in New Zealand. A few were done for fetal abnormalities, but students had to go to Sydney or Melbourne. One of the directors of the Samaritans and I worked together and got legal advice. We found out where people went and interviewed them when they got back and found out if things were OK. We also sent them over with a letter like you would do for any patient you send for special care.
Were illegal abortions performed in New Zealand?
Oh yes. People did silly things. I had an illegal abortion in the 1950s myself. The sentence for self-abortion in the 1950s was seven years in jail. When I retired I wrote a book called Abortion Then and Now and heard some stories. Some of the women who had illegal abortions were blindfolded so they didn’t know where they were going, some of the abortionists were sleazy or had sex with their patients. They took doses of pills, stuck things up their vaginas and in their uterus. As a doctor you would encourage them to do the safe thing, but you knew that if people were desperate they would do anything.
Did your personal experience help you in your job?
It gave me an appreciation of how strong the desire is to have an abortion and that women take enormous risks if we don’t provide a safe and legal service.
How did you end up in India doing vasectomies?
I studied vasectomies in England. I had a mentor, Dr Malcolm Potts. He convinced me to learn how to do them. I couldn’t do them in England because I wasn’t a qualified surgeon. Malcolm arranged for me to go to India and get practical experience. I did my first vasectomy on a bus in the slums of Bombay. It was an ordinary bus that had the seats removed and a plinth in the middle. We had a little bunsen burner that boiled up the instruments at the back. We carried promoters, men who spoke the local dialect, and we would find a place to stop and the promoters would go out and bring the men into the bus. So when I got back to New Zealand, I was able to say to Family Planning that I had the experience and wanted to start a clinic.
How did you juggle being a single working mother?
After my father died, my mother moved in with us and became part of our household. I will always be grateful for how much she helped out with childcare.
I’ve heard you do Scottish country dancing.
I have a few hobbies and one is Scottish country dancing. I do it every week for fitness. It’s great. My ancestry is Scottish, so it seemed appropriate.
Dame Margaret Sparrow: ‘‘I did my first vasectomy on a bus in the slums of Bombay.’’