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Dame Margaret Sparrow
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Immediate Past President,
Dame Margaret Sparrow
Dame Margaret Sparrow is a third generation New Zealander, born and educated in Taranaki. After studying for a BSc at Victoria University of Wellington she did medical research for a year before qualifying for her medical degree (MBChB) at the University of Otago in 1963. From 1963 to 1969 she worked in Taranaki at Stratford and Hawera Hospitals and in the Health Department as a Child Health Medical Officer. From 1969 to 1981 she worked in the Student Health Service at Victoria University where she was confronted by students needing contraceptive and abortion services, neither of which was provided at that time.
This led to a special interest in sexual and reproductive health. She was one of the first medical practitioners in New Zealand to offer emergency contraceptive pills. In 1971 she commenced training in family planning with the New Zealand Family Planning Association (FPA) and retired in June 2005.
On sabbatical leave from Victoria University in 1976 she studied for the Diploma In Venereology in London and gained experience in sexually transmitted dieases, family planning and abortion in the UK. In London and Bombay she learnt how to do vasectomies and on her return introduced a vasectomy service in Wellington FPA and completed nearly 7000 vasectomies.
In 1987 in recognition of her professional commitment to family planning, (clinical, teaching and research) as well as her voluntary contributions, she was made an Honorary Vice-President of the Association and the Wellington Clinic was named in her honour. In that year she received the MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours. In 1993 she was awarded an Honorary DSc from Victoria University and the Suffrage Centennial Medal. She received recognition from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists by being made an Honorary Fellow in 1998. In 2002 she received the DCNZM (Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit) in the Queen's Birthday Honours. In 2005 she was made an honorary life member of FPA. In 2009 her DCNZM was changed to DNZM when titles were restored by Prime Minister John Key and she accepted the invitation to become a dame.
From 1977 to 2004 she worked as a venereologist at the Wellington Sexual Health Service and in 1985 was registered as a specialist in this field. She was an inaugural member of the New Zealand Venereological Society (now the New Zealand Sexual Health Society) and remained actively involved until her retirement from sexual health in 2004. In 1995 in recognition of her voluntary contributions she was awarded honorary life membership of the New Zealand Venereological Society. She was an inaugural fellow of the Australasian College of Venereologists in 1991 and took an active role in the formation of the Australasian College of Sexual Health Physicians (1996) and the Chapter of Sexual Health Medicine in the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (2004).
Her commitment to abortion is both personal and professional. In 1956 when abortions were not available in New Zealand she learned about the illegal networks operating at that time and carried out a medical self abortion using a well known abortifacient. Her work with university students led to her involvement in abortion. In England in 1976 she received training in the early suction technique and worked in the Pregnancy Advisory Service, a London referral agency. In 1972 she was an Honorary Vice-President of ALRANZ and in 1975 became President. Except for the years 1980-1984 when Alistair Aitken was President, she has remained in this role. She was an inaugural operating doctor when the Parkview Clinic, Wellington Hospital, opened in July 1980 and continued as an abortionist until February 1998 when she was made redundant because she refused to become a certifying consultant.
In 1998 with four other experienced abortion providers she became one of the Directors of Istar, a not-for-profit Company formed to import the abortion pill, mifepristone, from France. Approval for the new medicine was obtained in August 2001 and this has given New Zealand women the option of having a medical abortion, as opposed to a surgical abortion.
She has two adult children and three grandchildren. One of her hobbies is collecting and curating old contraceptives.
Dr Margaret Sparrow writes
"ALRANZ was formed at a meeting in August 1970 in Auckland and incorporated on 11 February 1971. It arose as a reaction to the anti-abortion campaign being organised by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) formed in 1970.
At that time very few abortions were done in public hospitals and there was no private clinic. Much depended on the views of the gynaecologists practising in an area.
The law regarding abortion dated back to the Crimes Act 1908 and had not been changed when the Crimes Act was revised in 1961. The interpretation of the law had been influenced by a famous court case in London in 1938 where Dr Bourne had brought a test case after the rape of a 14 year old girl.
In 1969 there had been a high profile court case in Australia resulting in a more liberal interpretation of the law in the State of Victoria. This meant that for the first time New Zealand women, who could afford it, were able to travel to Melbourne for a private abortion.
In most areas in New Zealand illegal abortionists provided a service of sorts, whether it was doctors doing 'diagnostic D&Cs', health professionals providing a covert service, backstreet abortionists or chemists purveying remedies to correct menstrual irregularities. In addition there were numerous techniques for self-abortion.
Among health professionals abortion was a neglected topic, despite the large numbers of women admitted to public hospitals for complications of unsafe abortions.
Following the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill into New Zealand in 1961 women began to expect a greater control of their reproductive lives and there was an appreciation that women deserved better services for abortion care. The feminist movement embraced reproductive health care.
When working in the Student Health Service at Victoria University I came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to meet the needs of young women.
It was in this social environment that ALRANZ emerged strongly pro-choice, with the aim of allowing women the dignity and freedom to decide for themselves whether to continue an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy or to obtain a safe medical abortion.
I am proud to have been associated with ALRANZ for the past 35 years."