Socialist Worker

No return to the backstreet

The new film Vera Drake shows the reality of 1950s Britain, where women were denied access to safe, legal abortions. It holds lessons for today, says Andrea Butcher

Issue No. 1933

Still from the film Vera Drake

Still from the film Vera Drake

MIKE LEIGH’S film, out this week, takes us back in time to London in the 1950s. As in many large cities in Europe at that time, you find working people living in the wake of the Second World War and facing hardship, shortages and poverty.

Food is still on the ration, housing is crumbling and consumer luxuries like washing machines are only just starting to become available for the better off.

The film has already won the Goldon Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Imelda Staunton, who plays Vera, is being tipped for a best actress Oscar nomination. All this for a film that takes an uncompromising look at the issue of backstreet abortion.

Vera Drake is a woman in late middle age. Her children have grown up and gone to work—her daughter in a lightbulb factory and her son in a gents’ outfitters.

But both are still living at home in a cramped flat on a poor north London estate. Vera’s husband works as a car mechanic with his upwardly mobile brother who has moved out to the suburbs in search of a better life with his glamorous wife.

Vera works as a cleaner for a number of middle class families, and spends the rest of her time caring for her family and an assortment of relatives and neighbours. She moves from house to house, cleaning here, making tea there, running errands and doing chores.

But on Friday afternoons Vera has another job. She packs up her battered shopping bag and heads off to the homes of women in need of help.

Once there she prepares her instruments, which are a frightening combination of the medical and the everyday, instructs the women to lie down, and injects soapy water directly into their wombs.

It’s a horrific image of despair, made mundane by the motherly figure of Vera in her floral apron.

The women are a cross-section of the working class of the time. The young and frightened, older women desperate not to have any more children, recent immigrants from Jamaica—all turn to Vera for help.

All face the same terror and the same agonising wait for the abortion to take effect. Some go straight out to work—one woman even has the abortion while her husband sits unaware in the next room. Vera treats them all without judgment.

This film brilliantly shows the dilemmas faced by women with unwanted pregnancies. For these women there is no possibility of continuing with their pregnancies.

They are either too poor, too young or too exhausted, struggling to care for the children they already have. As Vera comments, “If you can’t feed ’em you can’t love ’em.”

With no access to legal, safe abortion, they resort to the army of backstreet abortionists. Mike Leigh says of Vera, “She’s a fictional character. But thousands and thousands of women not only in the UK but everywhere have always been Vera Drakes, through a need of society for that to happen for better or worse.”

The film also clearly shows the class disparities that existed. A young middle class girl is raped and needs an abortion. However, she has no need to resort to Vera or her contemporaries.

She is advised by a friend to visit a sympathetic doctor and make up “a fearful fib about a potty aunt” in order to convince the psychiatrist that she is mentally unstable.

She is then able to access the private clinics with their obliging staff and comfortable rooms. But the key to this is the £150 fee, an unimaginable amount for the working class women to whom Vera tends.

The 1967 Abortion Act made legal, safe abortion a reality for working class women in Britain. Before that time women had no option but to turn to people like Vera.

Prior to the act there were up to 100,000 backstreet or self-induced abortions in Britain every year.

At best this meant a visit to a nurse or a retired GP for an operation on the kitchen table without the benefit of anaesthetic or sterile conditions.

At worst it meant thousands of women inducing abortions by inserting sharp objects like skewers or knitting needles into their wombs, or using toxic substances such as lead to induce a miscarriage.

The result of this was often infection, poisoning, haemorrhage or sterility. Up to three quarters of gynaecological beds in hospitals were taken up dealing with the after-effects of illegal abortions.

Vera’s years as a backstreet abortionist are halted when one of the women she helps nearly dies. The police become involved and Vera is prosecuted under the Offences Against the Person Act.

Leigh leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusions about Vera’s actions, in much the same way as her unsuspecting family have to come to terms with what she has done.

But, if you look around the world today, hundreds of thousands of women still have to make the very same choices as the women in the film. A recent report estimated that 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions each year.

The real figure may be even higher. The report looked at what progress has been made since a major conference was held in Cairo in 1994 to address this issue.

The conclusions are grim. It reiterates that “poor, unmarried women, widows, adolescents and divorcees are the least likely to have access to safe abortions”.

Just two years ago 17 women in Portugal, where abortion is still illegal, were prosecuted for having terminations in a backstreet clinic. All but one were eventually cleared, but the nurse running the clinic was imprisoned for eight and a half years.

A Portuguese psychologist said at the time, “The court could have put thousands of women on trial because there are many, many more who have illegal abortions.

“This is the 21st century, but women in Portugal still do not have the right to decide what they will do with their own bodies and lives.”

Just like women in Ireland have to travel to Britain for help, Portuguese women have to go to Spain or resort to the backsteets.

Vera Drake is a film everyone should see. For a generation in Britain who have grown up with the availability of legal, safe abortion it acts as an alarm.

It’s both a wake-up call about the reality for women elsewhere in the world today and a warning that this is what we could so easily return to if we don’t defend the rights we have won.

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