Socialist Worker

Abortion: defending the right to choose

Wendy Savage traces how abortion rights were won and why they still need to be defended today

Issue No. 2000

The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was started in 1936 by three women, Janet Chance, Stella Browne and Alice Jenkins.They were joined on the committee by two other radical feminists, Dora Russell and Frida Laski. All had supported sexual freedom for women and worked on improving access to birth control.

That same year saw a government enquiry into the high rates of maternal deaths. It found that backstreet abortions were the leading cause of women dying in pregnancy. These illegal operations were in turn related to poverty and lack of access to birth control.

The British Medical Association (BMA) also set up a committee to study the problem of deaths from illegal abortions. It reported in 1936 that “while the committee has no doubt that legalisation of abortion for social and economic reasons would go far to solve the problem of the secret operation, it realises that this is a matter for consideration by the community as a whole and not by the medical profession alone” – although the BMA’s annual conference did not receive the committee’s report positively.

Following public pressure, an interdepartmental committee, chaired by Norman Birkett, was set up in 1937 to make recommendations to the government on the issue.

But before it had reported, the gynaecologist Aleck Bourne performed an abortion on a 14 year old girl who had been raped by two guardsmen – and courageously referred himself to the police in order to test the law.

In the subsequent case, the judge ruled that it was lawful for a doctor to perform an abortion, notwithstanding prohibitions in the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, if continuation of a pregnancy would “wreck a woman’s mental or physical health”.

The Birkett Committee concluded that there were 100,000 illegal abortions every year and that the law should be amended to make it clear that a doctor acting in good faith could carry out an abortion on the grounds above. But then the Second World War intervened – so no action was taken.

Class divisions

It was clear that as early as the 1920s, upper class women were able to obtain abortions. But, as Mike Leigh’s recent film Vera Drake portrayed so vividly, less affluent women visited local women.

There were two further court cases in 1950 and 1958 where doctors who had performed abortions were acquitted, and two attempts to change the law in parliament by MPs sympathetic to legalising abortion – Reeves in 1952 and Robinson in 1961.

These events led up to an increasingly visible abortion rights campaign that emerged in the 1960s. ALRA was pushed into activity by its younger members, especially Diane Munday and Madeleine Simms. Public opinion had been swayed by the thalidomide disaster, where a new sleeping pill was found to produce severe deformities in the child if taken when the woman was in the early stages of pregnancy.

In 1965 Lord Silkin introduced a bill to legalise abortion in the House of Lords, which led to much debate. Parliament was dissolved before that bill could go to the Commons. But in the next parliament it became the basis for Liberal MP David Steel’s successful bill, which finally received royal assent in October 1966 and became law in April 1967.

Steel’s Abortion Act allows abortion to be performed by doctors in certain circumstances – but it remains illegal to perform an abortion if these conditions are not fulfilled.

This differs from the situation in the US, where the law was changed in 1973 by the US Supreme Court to give women the right to abortion on request, without any conditions, in the first trimester (13 weeks) of pregnancy. This ruling was made on privacy grounds, as enshrined in various amendments to the US constitution. After 13 weeks states could make their own regulations to protect the woman’s health, the court ruled.

In 1971 the British government set up the Lane Committee, chaired by a woman judge, following allegations that the law on abortion was being routinely flouted. The committee reported in 1974 that the Abortion Act was in fact working well.

Nevertheless, the Lane Committee pointed out that 87 percent of women approached their GPs within nine weeks of pregnancy. If they were promptly referred, they could have simple abortions involving day care operations. Yet delays in referral continue to this day – and day care only became available to most women in the 1990s.

False allegations

Anti-abortionists frequently made false allegations about the way the 1967 law operated. The most extreme example of this were claims that live babies from abortions were being sold for medical research, or even that aborted fetuses were being used to make soap.

The former claim was made by the Tory MP Norman St John-Stevas in 1970 and the latter in a notorious book called Babies For Burning. Despite these claims being journalistic fiction, they were used in an unsuccessful 1974 attempt to amend the Abortion Act.

In general the NHS was unprepared for the number of women coming forward for abortion, as the gynaecological profession did not accept the estimate of 100,000 to 150,000 illegal abortions put forward by pro-choice campaigners.

Fortunately, some farsighted people had set up the Birmingham and London Pregnancy Advisory Services – non-profit making charities that catered for women who could not get an NHS abortion. These became part of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which was launched in 1968.

By 1973 the number of legal abortions had reached 100,000. Half of these were done in the NHS and the other half were paid for by the women themselves. There was a strong regional variation – almost 90 percent of abortions were done in the NHS in the north of England, as compared to under 15 percent in the West Midlands. This variation was almost entirely due to differing attitudes of senior gynaecologists.

The only good thing that followed the Tories’ introduction of the internal market was that more abortions were contracted out to agencies by the NHS and hence fewer women now have to pay for their abortions. In 2004 some 88 percent of abortion operations were paid for by the NHS, though half of these were carried out by BPAS, Marie Stopes or private providers.

The National Abortion Campaign became an important political force in the 1980s to counter renewed attempts to amend the 1967 Abortion Act. These included John Corrie’s bill in 1981 and David Alton’s campaign to reduce the time limit for abortion to 18 weeks. He succeeded in reducing the limit from 28 weeks to 24 weeks in 1990.

Since then, the anti-abortionists kept a fairly low profile until about three years ago. But now they have launched a new campaign to reduce the abortion time limit from its present 24 weeks.

Less than 2 percent of abortions are performed later than 20 weeks into pregnancy, so clearly the anti-abortionists’ tactic is to gain sympathy for their cause from the general public.

A poll in April 2005 by Colin Francome asked the question, “Do you think the woman should be able to choose an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy?” Some 83 percent agreed with this statement.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the Daily Telegraph in August 2005 found that 41 percent agreed that “abortion should be free on demand on the NHS”. Some 53 percent of those aged 18 to 34 agreed, compared with 29 percent of those over 55. As far as time limits were concerned, 25 percent thought 24 weeks (as now), 2 percent said to term and 30 percent said 20 weeks.

In January 2006 Mori conducted a poll into sexual behaviour and attitudes and put one question about abortion time limits into their online survey. It found that 33 percent said the current law was “about right”, 4 percent thought the limit should be “later” and 42 percent thought it should be “lower”.

This was then reported by the Observer as women demanding a reduction in the abortion limit! Yet in previous polls, when given the reasons why women present late for abortion, there is greater support for later abortions.

Technical advances

The anti-abortion argument is that technical advances in the care of the extremely premature neonate (new born) mean that the limit should be reduced. Great strides have been made in neonatal care and subsequent survival of babies at 26 weeks and above. But those on the threshold of viability – defined as 22 weeks to 25 weeks – have a poor rate of survival and a high rate of severe handicap.

Personally I believe that the woman’s needs come before that of the fetus. The effect of abortion is to end a potential human life, and the difference between doing this at six weeks rather than 24 weeks is a technical and emotional one, not a moral or ethical difference. In practice it is rare for a woman to ask for a termination of pregnancy after 24 weeks, and those that do often have psychiatric problems.

The US has always had a far more polarised attitude to abortion, with the population split almost equally between pro-choice and anti-abortion. George Bush has a very negative attitude towards abortion. He has used his presidential power to affect overseas aid – with devastating consequences for the poorest women in the world.

Pro-choice activists fear that the replacement of US Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O’Connor by a more conservative figure may lead to the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision that legalised abortion being overturned. The state of South Dakota has already passed a law severely restricting legal abortion.

Appeals to the US Supreme Court may be successful in overturning new state laws. And a huge backlash is likely if they do not – a million people marched in Washington DC in defence of a woman’s right to choose in 2004.

In Britain, despite Tony Blair’s own religious belief and personal anti-

abortion stance, the health secretary Patricia Hewitt recently said the government had no plans to change the law.

Only 13 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion calling for a reduction in the time limit from 24 weeks and there is little support in parliament for a debate about abortion, despite the MP Evan Harris’s attempt to get a parliamentary committee to examine the question of time limits.

But there still needs to be a strong pro-choice voice to counter the anti-abortion position pushed by coverage in the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and other newspapers. So if you agree that abortion should be legally available and want to defend women’s right, go to and join Abortion Rights.

Wendy Savage is coordinator of Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion. Go to

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Sat 13 May 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2000
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