Socialist Worker

How protests beat back the Benyon Bill in 1977 and defended abortion rights

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2553

Marchers for abortion rights in May 1977

Marchers for abortion rights in May 1977 (Pic: Phil McCowan)


Forty years ago this month some 10,000 people marched in London to defend abortion rights. The demonstration, organised by the National Abortion Campaign (NAC), opposed a bill brought by Tory MP William Benyon.

At the time, women could access abortion services up to 28 weeks into pregnancy, if they met certain conditions. The Benyon Bill would have slashed this to 20 weeks. It would have given police power to access the medical records and addresses of women who had pregnancy tests, pregnancy advice or abortions.

Fines would have risen to a maximum of £1,000.

Local NAC groups produced leaflets explaining how the attacks would affect working class women, and urging support for the protest on 14 May.

One Glasgow NAC leaflet pointed out that many women already faced barriers accessing abortion services because of doctors’ “personal views”.

It said the Benyon Bill “would lead to more illegal abortions and unwanted children”.

Some groups described how things were before the 1967 Abortion Act. Then abortion had been illegal, although rich women were able to access it.

Some 4,000 women died in Britain as a result of unsafe, illegal abortions in 1966.

Sheffield NAC’s newsletter quoted women describing the days of “backstreet abortions”.

One woman said, “There were a lot of women died, a lot of women were ruined through it. They don’t do that unless they’re desperate.”

Needles

Another said, “Many performed [the abortion] on themselves. They used knitting needles, they used syringes, slippery elm bark. They used to use soap and water enemas, and they used sticks—with the most disastrous results.”

The protest was publicised with the slogan, “Don’t make 1977 the year of the knitting needle!”

The Labour Party and the TUC had passed motions opposing any restrictions on abortion rights at their conferences.

Individual Labour MPs pledged to support the march. But many wrote to organisers regretting that they wouldn’t be there.

In contrast, several trade union branches confirmed that they would send a delegation and donated to the campaign.

The march was a staging post in bringing unions into the movement for abortion rights. They would come to play a key role—after much argument.

In the event some 10,000 people came onto the streets. It was part of a year of campaigning for the right to choose.

Five women made national headlines when they threw stink bombs at MPs in parliament during a reading of Benyon’s bill.

The NAC said its aim was to build “a mass campaign for a woman’s right to choose”. One leaflet read, “We are not content simply to confine our activity to writing to or lobbying our MPs.”

Yet the NAC didn’t always support initiatives from socialists and others, such as to hold pickets of anti-choice group Spuc.

Benyon’s bill failed. But the anti-choice bigots continued their battle to take away women’s rights. In 1979 a TUC protest of 80,000 was key to beating back the Corrie Bill, which again tried to cut the abortion time limit.

Campaigns based on mass activity by ordinary people can stop bigots taking us backwards.


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