Sex, drugs and coun­try danc­ing

Amy Jack­man talks to Dame Mar­garet Spar­row about abor­tion, Scot­tish coun­try danc­ing and per­form­ing va­sec­tomies in Bom­bay

Kapi-Mana News - - FEATURE -

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.’’

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