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Abortion rights – 40 years on

This article is over 16 years, 8 months old
Forty years ago this weekend the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in Britain.
Issue 2074
 (Pic:» Nic Watts/ )
(Pic: » Nic Watts/

Forty years ago this weekend the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in Britain.

Prior to the Act, thousands of women desperate to end their pregnancies resorted to dangerous and illegal backstreet abortions, with many dying or being seriously injured as a result.

The Act has drawbacks – it doesn’t allow abortion on request, some women still face obstacles in accessing abortion services and it was never extended to Northern Ireland.

But the passing of the Act transformed the lives of thousands of women, and was a huge step forwards for women’s rights. The right to abortion is something the majority of people in this country support.

However, abortion rights have come under attack from the right ever since they were introduced. In the 1970s Tory MPs tried to change the law to restrict women’s access to abortion.

This led to mass campaigns to defend a woman’s right to choose.

Today we face new attacks on abortion rights. The Human Tissue and Embryo Bill is due to be put to the House of Commons this autumn. The bill will allow amendments to be put to alter the Abortion Act.

Abortion looks set to become a political battlefield once again.

Doctor Wendy Savage, a leading figure in the fight for abortion rights and the co-ordinator of Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion spoke to Socialist Worker about the issues.

Opponents of abortion focus on women who have late abortions and on trying to cut the time limit for abortions. But what are the facts on late abortion?

The anti-abortion lobby has seized on the issue of late abortions and time limits, because it thinks it has identified a “soft” spot in public opinion. But their underlying aim is to remove all abortion rights. An attack on late abortion is an attack on abortion rights as a whole.

Late abortions are very rare and this has been true regardless of time limits or fetal viability.

In 1983 I did research into all women who had presented for an abortion after 20 weeks in Tower Hamlets in east London. There were just 12 requests made after 20 weeks – or 1.5 percent. This matched the picture in the country as a whole.

The main reasons for late presentation were denial of pregnancy, youth and mental disorder.

One 14 year old recently arrived from Bangladesh where she had been raped on the way to collect water from a well. She was 30 weeks pregnant and the only case that had presented over 28 weeks in the entire decade.

I have seen over 3,500 women presenting with an unwanted pregnancy in four different countries and this case was one of only two over 28 weeks.

To have such a focus on what amounts to a tiny minority of abortions is ridiculous, and betrays the political and ideological reasons that underlie this focus.

Some women still meet obstruction from their GPs, and the General Medical Council guidance on this remains weak.

Abortions at over 20 weeks are often associated with delays in the system, and could be reduced in number by the provision of NHS daycare facilities.

What would be the effect of cutting the time limit for abortion?

The effect of lowering time limits on abortion is that women who are the most vulnerable – young, poor, ethnic minorities and those with fetal abnormalities – would be prevented from having an abortion.

It would mean more injuries and deaths of women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies and resorting to unhygienic and dangerous methods.

I was against the change to the law in 1990, the last time there was a major attack on abortion rights, as very few abortions were done after 24 weeks’ gestation. As most doctors are reluctant to perform later abortions they were only done for compelling fetal or maternal reasons.

The attack laid the way open for the anti-abortion organisations (who really want to outlaw all legal abortion) to seize on this emotive topic and campaign for a lowering of the time limit.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Medical Association, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine and the Royal College of Nursing all support the current time limit of 24 weeks.

Some people who argue that the time limit for abortion should be cut often talk about “scientific developments”. What are these?

There is a question about fetal viability – which means the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb. Some argue that scientific advances mean that this occurs earlier. But medical opinion, based on good research, does not support this idea.

There were great advances in neonatal intensive care in the 1970s and 1980s, which led to calls for the limit to be reduced from 28 weeks to 24, but this hasn’t been the case since 1990.

I think the issue has been muddled by pictures showing a fetus to be “walking” in the womb and such like, which have been seized upon by the emotive, unscientific and mainly religious groups who are part of the anti-abortion movement.

From this, people wrongly extrapolate that the fetus can feel pain – there is a lot of wooly thinking about fetal pain. More pseudo-science, which comes from “research” funded by the anti-abortion lobby, talks about a link between abortion and breast cancer.

But they rely on speculation – there’s no evidence. In fact the evidence is that there is no link, as the Royal College of Gynaecologists confirms.

Even if fetal viability was improved by scientific advances, do you think that this should impact on the time limit for abortions?

Personally I do not think that viability should be linked to the time limit for carrying out an abortion. The fetus has the potential to become a live baby, but while in the womb it is dependent on its mother and is not a sentient human being. The mother’s health and needs should always come first.

4-D scanning techniques have been hailed as giving evidence of fetal awareness at early stages. What do they show?

Women have always known that the baby moves – they can feel this from about 16-18 weeks – and that a fetus is a potential baby.

I do not think the scans give us any new information but merely present it in visual form – which we’ve not had access to previously – and which the anti-abortionists have taken up enthusiastically.

Even Tory MP Ann Widdecombe admits that this represents advances in photography and not science.

There is talk of forcing women to undergo counselling prior to abortion. What is your opinion of this?

It is completely unnecessary. It is good practice for women to have the opportunity to speak to a counsellor if they wish. But the vast majority of women have made up their minds by the time they consult their doctor, and have discussed the matter with their partner or family members or friends.

How important do you see abortion rights to women’s rights in general?

Abortion rights are crucial to women’s lives. Without good contraception and abortion as a back-up women are perpetually at risk of becoming pregnant and thus cannot live their lives as they wish.

Most women across the world are still in this state. Some 500,000 a year die globally because of pregnancy, 13 percent of those because of unsafe abortion, and millions more are harmed by pregnancy and unsafe abortion.

As a student I saw a woman in her mid-30s die of renal failure in Forest Gate Hospital in 1959 after she had syringed herself in an attempt to abort at about 20 weeks.

I then went abroad and saw several young women die from unsafe abortions. In Kenya in 1968, an 11 year old nearly died of sepsis and had probably lost her chance of having children in the future.

My experience convinced me that abortion should be legalised and done by doctors to prevent the loss of life and risk of ill-health from unsafe abortion.

Do you think there are any problems with the current law? How do you think it should be changed?

We should remove the need for two doctors to sign to agree an abortion can be carried out. The 1967 Act should be extended to Northern Ireland.

We should allow other suitably trained health care professionals to carry out first trimester abortions – the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Research in other countries has shown that nurses can perform first trimester abortions safely.

There is no reason why nurses, midwives or other suitably trained health care professionals should not carry out abortions.

On top of this, we should remove the restriction on where abortions can be carried out.

There is no reason why GP surgeries and health centres should not be used, and early medical abortions can be done at home if the woman wishes to do this.

These things can also all prevent late abortions, by making access easier in the initial stages when women present for an abortion.

Wendy Savage has been the press officer and co-ordinator for Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion since 1976 »

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