This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act—one of the most important breakthroughs for working class women.
The Act meant that women no longer had to resort to illegal and dangerous backstreet abortions. But it didn’t provide “abortion on demand” as right wingers claim.
It has serious drawbacks—it was never extended to Northern Ireland and some women still have problems accessing abortion services.
But it meant that doctors were able to perform abortions without being prosecuted under the Offences against the Persons Act 1861.
Jan grew up in the 1960s and remembers what it was like before the Act.
“Abortion was an open secret growing up,” she told Socialist Worker. “You would hear stories about women throwing themselves down stairs, or having hot baths and gin to induce abortion.
“I knew of people visiting from Ireland. No one said openly why they were there, but everyone knew it was to have an abortion.”
The results of these abortions, carried out under illegal conditions, were dangerous and sometimes fatal. Some 4,000 women died as a result of backstreet abortion in Britain in 1966.
Steve was 11 when his mum died because of a complication from a backstreet abortion. “She couldn’t afford an abortion legally, but knew of someone from a neighbouring village who could do it,” he told Socialist Worker.
“She became ill very quickly, but didn’t tell anyone about it because it was an imprisonable offence.
“She told nobody—and my brother had to raise the alarm. It should be up to women to make decisions about their body. All this moralising means women die.”
But not everyone had to resort to the backstreet—even before 1967 richer women were able to access abortion in private clinics.
Pam spoke to Socialist Worker about the people who performed illegal abortions. “Some would charge you money, but others were sympathetic and just wanted to help,” she said.
“They wouldn’t always take care of people afterwards though, so if you bled too much you’d have to go to hospital.”
Today decisions about abortions still rest in the hands of doctors. A woman still needs the agreement of two doctors in order to have an abortion.
And doctors can refuse to perform the procedure citing conscientious objections. The 1967 Act has withstood multiple attacks, most notably the 1979 Corrie Bill. It remains a major breakthrough. But the fight for abortion on demand continues.
Before the 1967 Act working class women seeking an abortion had to rely on underground networks of support.
Mary Phillips in south London let young women stay with her following their backstreet abortions.
Mary told Socialist Worker, “They were always terrified, and sometimes they were teenagers.
“They were so scared they would give me a false name.”
Across Britain the lack of legal abortion had a devastating effect on women.
“Sometimes people died, or would end up in hospital—which was also distressing as they weren’t able to tell the hospital staff how they got the abortion,” said Mary.
“The passing of the Act was brilliant.
“But 50 years on its limitations still anger me.”
Pam was a school teacher and NUT union activist in Newham, east London, at the time of the 1979 Corrie Bill, which tried to restrict abortion rights.
The TUC called a mass protest against it.
Pam told Socialist Worker, “There was absolutely a class divide.
“If you were a princess you would get flown over to Switzerland to have an abortion. But we couldn’t get a safe one.
“We raised support for the TUC protest in our NUT branch, and nine out of 11 teachers came on it.
“It made a fantastic difference—it was powerful.
“It changed my colleagues’ minds about trade unions, they began to see how unions could have an impact.”
There have been attempts to undermine the 1967 Act from the day it was passed. But there has also been mass resistance.
A popular tactic is to try to reduce the cut-off date for legal abortions.
This was originally set at 28 weeks and was cut to 24 weeks in 1990. But just 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks.
Attacks on time limits are attempts to chip away at a woman’s right to choose.
The Act doesn’t reflect medical advances that have made abortion easier than ever.
It doesn’t cover abortion pills. So if a woman buys pills to medically induce an abortion she could be prosecuted with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
A key battle today is demanding the extension of the Act to Northern Ireland.
Women in Northern Ireland pay the same national insurance as women in England, and receive most of the same NHS treatments.
Except they still have to travel to England to access abortion services.
And until June this year they were expected to fund the cost of the procedures themselves.
There have been movements across the world, from Ireland to Poland, to extend a woman’s right to choose. We should take inspiration from these and continue to fight for abortion rights.
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