Issue 213 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: An act of liberation

Margaret Renn

When the Radio 4 Today programme remembered the anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act it was with a short item about anguish and guilt. A spokesman for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child provided the 'all abortion is wrong' moral balance. But otherwise it was all about how women who have had abortions feel.

Thirty years ago you were unlikely to hear a woman on the subject at all. Abortions took place, of course, in their thousands every year. But they were mostly illegal. You might hear a bit of gossip everyone knew someone. Advice and scare stories percolated around in equal measure. By the mid-1960s this was all about to change, slowly at first and then in a great flood of legislation, changing ideas and rising expectations.

Before the 1967 act the law did allow abortions to save a woman's life. In that year there were 9,700 abortions on the NHS. With the usual hypocrisy, if you had money and connections you could buy one. There were another 10,000 abortions in private clinics. But the political issue was the uncountable thousands of illegal backstreet abortions, which caused unimaginable trauma, pain, death and sterility, and always carried the threat of discovery and prosecution.

For the 1960s reformers the issue was not particularly women's rights. Backstreet abortion was a scandal. How could lives be saved, women's health protected, this simple operation transferred from someone's kitchen table with a knitting needle and a bowl of soapy water to the antiseptic environment of a hospital or clinic? The act that emerged, hedged around as it was with all sorts of ifs and buts time limits, concepts of risk and serious risk, requiring the signatures of two doctors was for all that an incredibly progressive piece of legislation.

It arrived hand in hand with a variety of other progressive changes to the law in a rapidly changing Britain, product of the postwar economic boom: legislation to end capital punishment (1965), decriminalise homosexual relationships (1967) and allow divorce (1969). The Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Pay Act followed. Women were entitled to pensions in their own right and paid maternity leave. The legal changes accompanied a vast expansion in work for women, better access to higher education and the mass marketing of the contraceptive pill.

And in 1970 the women's movement had literally burst upon the scene. At its first conference that year it set out four demands: equal pay; equal education and opportunity; 24 hour nurseries; free contraception and abortion on demand. The first demands reflected the economic changes that were already taking place. The last, for abortion on demand, took the 1967 act and, finding it wanting, revived a much older and wider demand: not for abortion as a solution to a problem but abortion as a woman's right.

In the 1930s Stella Browne, a founder member of the Communist Party and campaigner for women's rights, had written in an article on 'The Right to Abortion':

'Abortion must be the key to a new world for women, not a bulwark for things as they are, economically nor biologically. Abortion should not be either a prerequisite of the legal wife only, nor merely a last remedy against illegitimacy. It should be available for any woman, without insolent inquisitions, nor ruinous financial charges, nor tangles of red tape. For our bodies are our own.'

It was as clear a statement for women in the 1970s as it had been 40 years previously.

The new Abortion Act had its opponents. Shocked by the published figures which showed the number of abortions rising steadily each year (50,000 abortions in 1969, 100,000 in 1975), the anti-abortion lobby found itself with the ammunition it needed to attack the act. A powerful alliance emerged between sections of old, traditional Labour, which often depended on Catholic votes, the Catholic Church itself and pretty much the whole of the Conservative Party. In 1975 James White, a right wing Labour MP for Glasgow Pollock, introduced a private member's bill, limiting still further the criteria for an abortion and the time limit within which it had to be performed. Had his bill been adopted it would have decimated the act.

But if restrained parliamentary lobbying had brought about the change in the law in 1967 it was not going to be unpicked by the same polite methods 1975 was not 1967.

While James White MP had probably anticipated a rather restrained affair, argued out in the committee rooms of the House of Commons, he and his supporters found themselves hurled into a campaign fought out in public, often on the streets. It was tough and fun. There were literally thousands of women, in all the organisations on the left and many not yet in anything, who had found a voice and weren't prepared to be dictated to by some miserable Labour MP.

The campaign itself grew out of a relatively small meeting to set up the National Abortion Campaign and throughout the rest of the 1970s it battled on, against onslaught after onslaught on the 1967 act. Every time an anti-abortion MP won a place in the ballot there was a new private member's bill first James White, then William Benyon and finally John Corrie. Within weeks of that first meeting a massive demonstration was organised. Petitions, pickets, occupations followed. We thought nothing of finding out what Spuc, the arch enemy, was up to and disrupting it. Women chained themselves to the railings at the House of Commons and disrupted religious services in cathedrals and churches.

That wasn't all. Despite the economic recession, the Wilson government's Social Contract and the disappointment which had replaced the euphoric defeat of the Ted Heath government in 1974, the trade union movement was still fit and strong. Women were joining in numbers and many of the conventional barriers were being dismantled. On the first, huge, pro-abortion demonstration in London there were trade union banners from all the white collar unions, trades councils, post office workers and engineers. By 1979 there was a massive demonstration called by the TUC (yes, called by the TUC) when wave after wave of trade union banners from every trade union and every part of the country swept into Hyde Park, with Len Murray, general secretary of the TUC, at its head.

It all seems a very long time ago. This was before Thatcher. The debate has ebbed and flowed since, into time limits, foetal experiments, the rights of fathers. It seems impossible that we should ever have to revisit the argument against backstreet abortions again. But never be complacent. Religion and politics are a potent mix. The act has never covered Northern Ireland (see below). In the US doctors who work in abortion clinics risk their lives there have been five deaths in the last three years.

The rights of women and the rights of the unborn foetus are opposite starting points and cannot be reconciled. Either women have the right to control their bodies or someone else does.


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