The birth of family planning in NZ

By Kirsty Lawrence, Hannah McKee

Dame Margaret Sparrow. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dame Margaret Sparrow. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the early 1960s dramatically changed many New Zealand women's lives, including that of Dame Margaret Sparrow.

Then a 26-year-old living in Dunedin, she had taken two years off from medical school to have children. Her husband, also a medical student, was on work placement at a general practice when he was approached by drug representatives.

"He came home that day and said 'Look, I've got these new free samples, maybe we should give them a try'," Dame Margaret says. "It changed our lives greatly because for the first time I could regulate fertility. It enabled me to go back to medical school."

Dame Margaret, now 78 and living in Wellington, went on to become New Zealand's leading contraception specialist and sexual health physician.

She was twice president of the pro-choice group the Abortion Law Reform Association, and worked for the Family Planning Association for more than 30 years.

She remembers the "sexual revolution" that followed the introduction of the Pill in the 60s.

"For the first time, the bonds of sex and reproduction had been broken, meaning sex was now a means of love and pleasure as well as reproduction," she says.

With this new certainty of controlled fertility many women began delaying marriage and childbirth, instead attending university and pursuing careers.

The Pill was still relatively "hush-hush" at the time, Dame Margaret says. GPs were cautious, had a medical guideline of ethics and openly prescribed it only to married women.

"I was the perfect candidate, I was young, healthy and luckily, unlike a lot of other women, I didn't have any side effects," Dame Margaret says.

"I think side effects are something one always has to think about and try to balance. You have to be open with patients about the benefits and risks of different forms of contraception."

The IUD, or intrauterine device, was introduced to New Zealand in the mid-1960s and by 1975 more than 500 women had the Dalkon Shield.

Manufacturers were forced to withdraw the product in the US as it was causing pelvic inflammatory disease, which could lead to sterility. In the US, women filed successful claims against manufacturers and some New Zealanders also tried to receive compensation.

In the 1980s, awareness of HIV and Aids saw the promotion of barrier methods increase, and campaigns promoting safer sex and condom use. In the 1990s, Depo-Provera, an early long-acting reversible contraception, given by three-monthly injections, was introduced.

- Herald on Sunday

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