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Abortion rights today

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The 1967 Abortion Act transformed women’s lives, but there is still much to fight for, writes Anna Livingstone, campaigner and GP
Issue 1947
illustration by Anouk Prasad
illustration by Anouk Prasad

‘Every child a wanted child, every mother a willing mother” was one of our slogans on the great demonstrations against attacks on the abortion law in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not out of date today. Women’s lives are at risk throughout pregnancy and childbirth. And while the risk in Britain is tiny, in most of the world — especially poorer countries — it is still very high.

One in eight of these deaths—at least 70,000 women a year—result from unsafe abortions. Meanwhile hypocrites like George Bush and the ruling religious right in the US talk about the “right to life” of foetuses, while carrying the responsibility for the death of 100,000 people in Iraq since the invasion.

I am a woman, a socialist and a general practitioner. I was a teenager when the 1967 Abortion Act was passed and I remember the relief we felt that safe abortion would at last be legal in Britain for women beyond those who could pay to get around the system.

I vividly remember an older gynaecologist — by no means a radical — in a south London hospital where I worked in the late 1970s. He chided junior staff for their ignorance when they made moralistic remarks about the irresponsibility of women coming for abortions.

He told them of the reality before the 1967 Act. He described the morning ward rounds before the law changed, where emergency admissions had filled beds with desperate women in pain with vaginal bleeding and fever. These women said they were miscarrying, or just haemorrhaging. They were often too frightened to admit what had happened — an attempt at illegal abortion. Many ended up physically damaged and a few died.

The stigma of unmarried pregnancy continued throughout society, despite the so called Swinging Sixties. Women hid and still hide pregnancy, denying to themselves it could have happened.

Adoption was no easy answer. The situation was compounded by poverty, particularly for working class and single women, and the lack of equal pay, maternity rights and childcare facilities. Even at the end of the 1960s it was difficult for women to learn about and get hold of contraception. Many family planning clinics would only see the married.

In the 1970s as a medical student, I was part of the East London Abortion Campaign. Round the corner from the hospital in Whitechapel was a small corner cafe. Sylvia, who ran it, mobilised all her friends and neighbours to protest against attacks on the 1967 Act.

They remembered East End poverty, unwanted pregnancies and the dangers of the backstreets. Abortion on health grounds, with two independent doctors’ recommendations, had become legal in 1968. But the NHS was still slow to provide abortion in many areas.

We held a street occupation as part of our campaign for an NHS daycare abortion service in Tower Hamlets, where women could make a real choice. Local gynaecologists and obstetricians such as Peter Huntingford and Wendy Savage built and supported the service with staff who believed in it and wanted to work in it.

Health workers should not be made to take part in procedures to which we have moral objection. It is right that staff working with women having abortions should feel comfortable with this work.

However there is a bias in hospital training. Provision of safe abortion is not regarded as a core gynaecology skill, and there can still be poor understanding of the issue of abortion — just as there was in that south London hospital nearly 30 years ago.

There remains a shortage of people willing to provide early and especially later abortions on the NHS. For this reason many areas buy abortion services from the private sector and specialised clinics. These often do not provide women with a local service for follow up.

In my job as a GP I see many women every year who are pregnant. Most of them want to be, though some do not. I see Muslims, atheists, Catholics, other Christians — people from all faiths and backgrounds — who have abortions.

Women’s decisions about what to do are sometimes very personal and secret, and sometimes shared only with fathers and those close to them. Early abortion is very safe and most women with unwanted pregnancies get early abortions if waiting lists aren’t too long in their areas.

However, over the years I have seen a small number of women who needed very late abortions. Examples include when a partner leaves, pregnancies among very young women, those with irregular periods or at the menopause, or when testing has shown a baby with abnormalities. Under 1 percent of abortions are performed at 22 weeks or over. I am appalled at the opportunism and the lack of respect for women by politicians like Michael Howard when they call for earlier limits.

What we really need is excellent, free contraception, good abortion facilities, and NHS fertility treatment — as well as rights and facilities for parents and children.

For information go to or phone 020 7278 5539. Abortion Rights was formed in 2003 from the Abortion Law Reform Association and the National Abortion Campaign.

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