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Reproductive rights pioneer recalls advent of contraceptive pill 60 years on

It was the peak of the post-war baby boom with an average birth rate of 4.3 births per New Zealand women when the Pill arrived in 1961.

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The reliable contraception lowered the country's birth rate and paved the way for women to have greater independence. Source: 1 NEWS

“I think of all the events that have happened, the introduction of the Pill, giving women better control of their fertility so that they could do other things ... be educated, have a career, get into other spheres, that wouldn’t have happened without the Pill,” Dame Margaret Sparrow told 1 NEWS.

“Women were still dying of abortions in 1961, most districts had an illegal abortionist and the methods of contraception were not that great. … There were not many doctors who were trained to fit a diaphragm, condoms were of poor quality, had a poor reputation here, vasectomy was not available yet in New Zealand and IUDs were an old method but they’d really fallen out of favour.”

Dame Margaret gained access to the green Anovlar pill when her husband, a medical student at the time, brought free samples home and said “try this”.

“I said, ‘Yes! That sounds good,’ cause I'd already had two children using a diaphragm and one abortion so I knew what the consequences were for having an unplanned pregnancy,” she said.

“I didn’t have any qualms about it being an experimental drug or a new drug, there had been trials but they hadn’t been extensive … but I think when you’re young and the options are not that pleasant … then the choice was not difficult.”

She said while some women saw the pill as freedom to pursue new goals, which for her was becoming a doctor, others were concerned about the changing role of women, sexual exploitation and a change in relationships.

Dame Margaret said many women had serious health side effects from the Pill and a few died.

“But women also died because of pregnancy or childbirth,” she wrote in a historical account marking the 60th anniversary for Family Planning.

While the UK Government subsidised the cost of the Pill in 1961, in New Zealand it was pricey and the Government wasn’t interested, she said.

“There wasn’t a lot in the popular press at that time … some doctors didn’t approve of the Pill but those who did still had quite strict rulings and the medical association had a ruling that it shouldn’t be prescribed for unmarried,” Dame Margaret said.

“We used to ask women to put on their wedding rings or we gave them things to wear so they could come into our clinics in the early days,” Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond said.

In 1969, Dame Margaret pushed for wider access, prescribing the pill to students at Victoria University’s student health clinic.

“I thought I might lose my job but after no speaks for about a fortnight we came to an agreement and I continued to prescribe … I felt it was our responsibility," she said.

“I think it was patients on the other side of the desk asking, needing help and recognising that need and in Family Planning I found people similarly of that view."

Half of all fertile Kiwi women were using the Pill by 1974, Te Papa reports.

The New Zealand Encyclopedia states by 1978, the birth rate had dropped further than the earlier record-low of the economic depression in the 1930s and by 1983, it was 1.8 children per woman.

Last year New Zealand’s birth rate dropped to the lowest level yet at 1.61 births per woman.

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Dame Margaret was one of the first women in New Zealand to try a free sample of the pill. Source: 1 NEWS

Today, while there’s far greater access to contraception, some women still face barriers based on the cost of getting contraception or based on available access where they live.

“It would be fantastic if all contraception visits to your primary health care provider was free,” Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond said.

In 2019, the Government funded two contraceptive devices that are inserted into the uterus and provide long-lasting contraception.

“There is more choice, more effective options are on the table but there's still work to do particularly around access,” Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said.

“That programme has been picking up the number of LARC’S (long-acting reversible contraceptives) in consultations that it’s delivered so we're pleased about that," she said.

"The thing we need to do now is to really focus on training the workforce so that we have more people who can insert say the intrauterine device, but also to just build awareness that this is an option and that if a women presents asking for contraception that they're given the full set of options available."

Accessibility criteria for the funded IUDs varies between district health boards currently.

“There's a process to go through, for the Ministry to work with the DHBs to make sure that that's brought into line,” she said.

Waiting lists to have the devices inserted at Family Planning clinics can take up to four weeks, or longer, in some parts of the country.

Family Planning is calling for a funding increase from the Government to keep up with demand.

“We haven’t had an increase of substance for over 12 years so it’s really difficult for us to increase our services or increase our clinician time,” Edmond said.

Dame Margaret said the Pill is being “knocked off its perch” by the IUD as improvements have been made in delivering hormones to women.

“These days, long acting reversible contraceptives … are really being promoted now in favour of the Pill,” she said.

“The only drawback with those at the moment being access and the fact that not all doctors are trained to provide this.”

Dame Margaret said there would always be a place for the Pill though and thinks there should be statues erected in honour of the contraception.

“Historically it will always be the catalyst that brought about huge change in women’s lives.”