By Elane Heffernan
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2074

Abortion: no return to the backstreets

This article is over 16 years, 9 months old
In 1966, the year before abortion was legalised, around 4,000 women in Britain died trying to end a pregnancy that they did not want, could not afford, or could not cope with.
Issue 2074
Defending a woman’s right to choose (Pic: Socialist Worker)
Defending a woman’s right to choose (Pic: Socialist Worker)

In 1966, the year before abortion was legalised, around 4,000 women in Britain died trying to end a pregnancy that they did not want, could not afford, or could not cope with.

They died in agony from infections or perforated wombs – often bleeding to death afraid to go to hospital in case of arrest. It is estimated that every year between 60,000 and 100,000 women went to backstreet abortionists while up to 40 percent of “miscarriages” were self-abortions.

In total, despite the risk of death or prison, somewhere between 16 to 20 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion – around the same level as today.

The right to abortion, like the right to divorce and the availability of safe contraception, was an important victory in the fight for women’s rights.

It reflected the wider social changes brought about by women gaining a degree of economic independence as well as the struggles for liberation and equality of the 1960s.

A woman’s right to choose whether to have children or not is fundamental to her, and her child’s, prospects of having a decent and happy life.

The alternatives to abortion have always been long term misery of one kind or another – shotgun weddings, poverty and overcrowding, the mental strain of caring for a child when you cannot, and a constant fear of pregnancy that makes it impossible to freely enjoy sexual relationships.


When women cannot control their fertility they cannot plan their lives or be free to take part in work and society on an equal basis with men.

This is why, 40 years on, just 3 percent of people oppose all abortion while three quarters support the idea that it should be entirely a woman’s right to choose in the first three months of pregnancy – when 90 percent of all abortions are performed.

Until the Industrial Revolution, abortion was not considered a crime

under the Common Law untill “quickening” – the point at which the baby begins to move in the womb at 16-18 weeks.

It did not become illegal until 1861 – at the same time as the state began to regulate marriages, register all births and develop a range of measures to codify family life and discipline the personal lives of the new industrial working class.

When women have no safe legal abortion, it does not stop them. The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 million unsafe illegal abortions a year are performed worldwide and that 68,000 – overwhelmingly poor women – die as a result.

When legal abortion came under attack – just years after the 1967 Act had been passed, a mass movement to defend it came rapidly into being.

The National Abortion Campaign mobilised tens of thousands of working class people in defence of abortion rights. Socialist women, who were part of the wider working class movement, as well as activists from the women’s movement, launched petitions, lobbies of MPs, meetings and film shows.


Arguing that abortion was a class issue, they found a bedrock of support beyond the ranks of those who thought of themselves as feminists or who rejected religious teachings about the “unborn”.

The TUC responded to the grassroots organisation, passing resolutions in favour of a woman’s right to choose and mobilising 80,000 to march on parliament in 1979 against the bill put by John Corrie, a bigoted Tory MP.

The demonstration marked the high point of the abortion rights movement. Thanks to the huge resistance against Corrie, attempts to restrict abortions no longer talk of a “woman’s place” or “god’s will”.

They now put their energies into the thin end of the wedge – the “softer” issues of viability and disability – lying about their real intent to deny us the right to decide for ourselves whether or not to have children.

The degree of freedom to control our own lives has always been an indicator of the general level of liberation in society. That is why the first society to allow women to have safe medical abortions in hospital, without restriction, was revolutionary Russia after 1917.

It also granted women support in childcare and complete freedom to divorce – rights taken back under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship.

Ninety years on, while we still have to get two doctors to give us permission and half of all NHS hospitals refuse abortion after 12 weeks, the right to free and safe abortion is one we must fight to defend and extend as part of our fight for freedom and equality.

Not the church. Not the state

Margaret Renn, a leading women’s rights campaigner, remembers the movement for the right to choose.

“Not the church. Not the state. Women must decide their fate.” I must have shouted that slogan thousands, probably tens of thousand of times.

Once, with a megaphone to my lips, I was chanting it as a group of us charged onto the muddy expanse of Chelmsford Football Club to disrupt a massive anti-abortion rally, organised by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).

SPUC could always put on a good show, with its supporters bussed in from the doors of the Catholic church on a Sunday.

But we knew how to put on a good show too.

Each time an MP – always a male, James White, William Benyon and John Corrie – tried to turn back the clock on the 1967 Abortion Act we were out in force.

We helped set up the National Abortion Campaign, and had a lively time arguing with the feminists and all the left groups over the detail and meaning of one slogan over another.

Our arguments weren’t always sophisticated, but we knew how to run a good campaign.

And that campaign lasted for years, as those wretched MPs whipped up a fear of life destroyed and women off the leash.

But this was the 1970s. We’d found our voice. And we weren’t going to be dictated to, deafened or defeated.

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