Socialist Worker

Defending women’s right to choose

Most major trade unions in Britain now have policy to support a woman’s right to choose. But it was very different 30 years ago. The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion. When the act came under attack activists were determined to take the fight to t

Issue No. 1926

National Abortion Campaign protest in 1979

National Abortion Campaign protest in 1979

Angela Phillips played a key role in organising a 50,000-strong TUC demonstration against the Corrie Bill, the third attempt to restrict abortion rights, in 1979.

‘We had major problems winning the male hierarchy of the trade union movement to supporting abortion rights. They said that abortion was too controversial, that it was divisive, and that raising it would split the union movement.

I was an activist in the National Union of Journalists and in the National Abortion Campaign (NAC).

A group of us went to raise the issue at a TUC meeting, but the union leaders wouldn’t let us speak.

Ken Gill was in the chair. He was a longstanding leader of the engineering union and a Communist Party member. He wouldn’t let us open our mouths.

So I passed a resolution condemning the Corrie Bill through my union executive to get moved at the women’s TUC.

The only real opposition from my union executive came from other women, feminists, who wanted to prioritise a resolution calling for reserved seats for women.

The big surprise was that when we moved our resolution at the women’s TUC there was no major opposition.

This was because it was working class women who were most affected by the lack of safe abortions. They were the most likely to be forced to have backstreet abortions.

The resolution passed easily. But we didn’t just want a resolution that enabled people to pat themselves on the back. The resolution called on the TUC to organise a demo against the Corrie Bill.

Some people tried to ensure it was just a group of women organising a march, not the whole trade union movement.

But we spent months going to trade union conferences, leafleting, and contacting trade unionists to ask them to put resolutions to their union branches.

We wanted to build momentum to make the TUC feel obliged to honour the resolution, and we wanted to make sure people turned up to the march.

The old, tired men in the movement tried to stop us. But there was a real groundswell of support.

The demo was huge. But there was a huge row about who should lead it, women or the TUC. Some feminists said that women were being usurped by male trade unionists.

But by going through the unions we were reaching thousands of women who felt no connection with the feminist movement, but who remembered what it was like before abortion was legalised, just 12 years earlier.

There are continuous attempts to chip away at abortion rights, especially in the US. We should never relax our guard or forget the fundamental issue—that women have the right to control their own bodies.’

Helen Blair was a young teacher near Glasgow in the 1970s.

‘The fight for abortion was a defining moment for me. In 1976 I got my first job, in the Catholic school where I had been a pupil, Holy Cross.

The teachers’ union, the EIS, didn’t take a formal position on abortion. They said it was a personal matter.

But there were a whole series of big pickets and lobbies throughout Glasgow and the west of Scotland, as the three attempts to limit abortion rights were being debated.

Anti-abortion organisations like SPUC and LIFE were big in Scotland. Every time I went on a pro-abortion protest I saw my management protesting on the other side.

My headteacher called me in and told me to apply for a transfer, to leave the school. They tried to threaten and intimidate me out of protesting.

One of the school hierarchy actually got in touch with my parents’ parish priest. The priest told them to stay behind after mass, then told them to make me stop protesting. It caused a breach in the family that lasted months.

The deputy head was a religious zealot, but he was in the union. He moved a motion of no confidence in me as union rep. I defended my right to protest outside school.

There were 75 members of staff and I won the vote by 74 to one. Even the ex-nuns voted for me.

We set up a National Abortion Campaign group in Glasgow to mobilise for demos and to reach out to trade unionists. It wasn’t a case of men against women. It was pro-choice versus anti-abortionists. I think the scale of the trade union support helped to ensure our side won.’

In 1977 Women’s Voice printed this story from a working class woman doctor in Pontefract, Yorkshire.

‘Fighting the James White anti-abortion bill in 1975 was a busy time for the Women’s Voice group in Pontefract.

We set up an NAC group. Most of the women had no experience of attending, let alone organising, meetings.

But it was fantastic the way our confidence grew when the fight got under way. We held public meetings, street meetings and film shows.

And we worked very hard to get a resolution against the White Bill through union meetings.

Because we live in a mining area, the obvious union to concentrate on was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). We wrote to about 40 NUM branches in all, and the resolution was passed in ten.

We were invited to speak at one NUM branch meeting.

We went along expecting to find the usual half dozen men, but instead we were faced by a hundred miners. They hadn’t come to hear us—they had come to vote on the new bagpipes.

I think it was the first time they had been faced with eight women at their meeting. Anyway, they were very sympathetic—the pro-abortion motion was passed unanimously.

Their branch secretary came and spoke at our next street meeting.

At another local pit, though, it was a very different matter. We were told along the grapevine that the branch secretary kept tearing up our resolutions—and we had sent him three!

So we decided to picket the next meeting. At the club where the meeting was usually held they refused to tell us the starting time.

Eventually members began to arrive. We spoke to each one, and one agreed to take our resolution in with him.

Then the branch secretary arrived, and saw 12 angry women, he ran, wobbling like a little fat jelly, trying to make it to the back door as we chased him.

When he got inside we could hear the row break out.

The resolution was finally passed, with only one vote against, so our determination paid off.’

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Sat 6 Nov 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1926
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