Margaret Sparrow

Risking Their Lives: NZ Abortion Stories 1900–1939


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September 2017

Risking Their Lives is the third book in a series recording the history of abortion in New Zealand. It fills the gap between Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980 and Rough on Women: Abortion in 19th-Century New Zealand.

Abortion has always been a fraught political issue in New Zealand, from the draconian laws of the 1860s, when most abortions were illegal and clandestine and society’s emphasis was on punishment, to the turbulent abortion rights protests of the 1970s. In the early years of the 20th century, abortion came to be recognised not just as a crime but also as a major public health problem. In response to an embarrassingly large number of deaths from septic abortion, the government in 1936 appointed a Committee of Inquiry to investigate the issues. This was a turning point in people’s attitudes to abortion and women’s reproductive health in general.

Risking Their Lives features many previously untold stories salvaged from the coroner’s reports and newspaper reports of the day. The narrative is grim, but this is an honest retelling of our past, primarily letting the stories speak for themselves. As those who fought to make abortion safer and easier for women grow older and there are fewer people who remember what it used to be like, such stories become increasingly important to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Dame Margaret Sparrow
has had a long career in general and reproductive health. She has worked as Child Health Medical Officer in New Plymouth 1965-1969, in general practice at Victoria University  Student Health 1969-1981, as visiting Venereologist at Wellington Hospital 1977-1999,  at the Parkview Abortion Clinic 1980-1998, and with Wellington Family Planning from 1971 until her retirement in 2005. Born in Inglewood in 1935, she was educated at Waitara District and New Plymouth Girls’ High Schools and Victoria, Otago and London Universities. She has an honorary doctorate from Victoria University, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), and an Honorary Vice-President of Family Planning. She is President of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand and a Director of Istar Ltd, a not-for-profit company which imports the abortion pill. In 1987 she was awarded an MBE, in 1993 she received the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal and in 2002 was awarded the DCNZM for services to medicine and the community.


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