Socialist Worker

‘We went into workplaces to build for the demo’

Margaret Renn was editor of Women’s Voice, magazine of the Socialist Workers Party women’s organisation.

Issue No. 1926

‘The question of abortion threw itself at us. The law changed in 1967. But MPs who opposed abortion just would not let the issue lie. One after another, they tried to introduce amendments to the legislation.

There was also a very vocal anti-abortion campaign who went out on the streets, giving out offensive leaflets.

The arguments always shift, but not that much. We had to argue about when life begins, which people still argue about.

If life begins at conception abortion should be illegal. I believe life begins at birth, so women should be able to do what is in their best interests.

If they want an abortion, for whatever reason, then that’s their choice.

All the arguments focus on late abortions. But these are a tiny percentage, and women who need late abortions are the most desperate.

In the 1970s the unions were very different from now—not as aware of women’s issues. Lots of women were members of trade unions, but they were male dominated.

The fight for abortion rights was tied in with the rise of the women’s movement and raising all sorts of issues, such as equal pay and sex discrimination, which were very much trade union issues. We knew how to argue the case and be aware of other people’s sensitivities.

There were three attacks on the 1967 abortion act—the White Bill, the Benyon Bill and the Corrie Bill.

With each round, the level of trade union involvement in defending the act grew. I remember the Corrie Bill demonstration. We were so proud. The fact that the TUC called the demonstration gave us a huge opportunity to push the campaign further.

The build-up to the march was fantastic—we went into workplaces everywhere to put the case for abortion rights. On the day there was union banner after union banner. It was organised workers on the march.’

Angela McHugh was the deputy convenor for the AEU engineering union in a big factory in Glasgow in the 1970s.

‘The factory was mostly women, but the union was male dominated. But our shop stewards’ committee didn’t have a problem with the question of abortion when I raised it.

I put a poster up at work for a pro-abortion demo, and I was expecting complaints and arguments, but only one man complained, and I soon saw him off.

I went to address the Glasgow Trades Council on behalf of the National Abortion Campaign. I was a total wreck with nerves—it was all men. But they had no problem supporting me.

One night I went for a drink with my husband, who was a plumber, and some of his mates from the electricians’ union came along.

I had been invited to talk to their union branch, so abortion came up and we had a massive row. By the end of the night I had demolished their arguments. When it came to the meeting only one of them was there, and he didn’t say anything.

The older women were brilliant. For some of the younger ones it was a more difficult issue. They still believed they would have a big white wedding and live happily ever after.

And the Catholic church mobilised people against abortion. They filled coaches after Sunday mass to bring people down to SPUC events in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.

But we won the argument because we raised the issue of a woman’s right to choose, and talked about how some women wanted kids but couldn’t afford them, as well as arguing for abortion on demand.

Young women today are so much more confident. If they tried to attack abortion rights now, I think they would have a big fight on their hands.’

Linda Jones was an electrician in a factory near Glasgow in the 1970s. She was a single parent and a union activist.

‘There wasn’t a lot of support for abortion rights in my union branch. Lots of men were against it on religious grounds.

There was one man who was brilliant on issues like equal pay, but he wouldn’t touch abortion.

I always argued that it was my body, so it was my choice. I said it would be my life that would be ruined if I couldn’t get an abortion when I needed one.

It wasn’t just an emotional issue—it was a political and economic issue too. If I had to leave work to look after a child I would never get my job back.

It was never about when a foetus can survive outside the womb—it was always about a woman’s right to choose.

I got pregnant in 1974. I wasn’t married. The doctor offered me an abortion and I decided against it. But I would have played hell if it hadn’t been offered. It’s about the right to control your own body.

The campaigns to defend the 1967 act were very successful. But it was difficult to raise it in my factory, because I worried that I would lose support for issues like equal pay.

You have to fight for things from the bottom up as well as from the top down. That’s what we will have to do if abortion rights are attacked again.’

Norah Rushton worked for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in the 1970s.

‘In Liverpool some left wingers led by Dr Cyril Taylor set up a BPAS clinic. It was non profit making. I worked as a counsellor there, giving information to women who needed an abortion.

There were a lot of Irish women coming across because they couldn’t get abortions in their own country.

Some came over on an early boat and went back the same night because they were terrified that someone would find out where they had been.

It was a very political question. People like SPUC thought giving women the right to have abortions undermined the family and women’s traditional role in society.

They spearheaded a backlash against the rights women were winning.

Lots of us in the Labour Party and on the left thought abortion rights were crucial for women to lead independent lives.

My mother thought it was great. She was a Labour activist who had seen women harm themselves trying to procure an abortion for themselves.

This was especially true for working class women—it was always possible for rich women to go off to a discreet private clinic.

We don’t want to take any backward steps after we made this huge gain. The Abortion Act wasn’t perfect, but it was a real gain.’


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