To be frank, I don’t really want to write about screeching millennial cry babies with pink hair stamping their feet and unable to comprehend you can’t always get what you want; and I don’t want to write about bloody Trump or bloody Brexit again. So, where does that leave me? Well, loath as I am to devote this blog to endless anniversaries – the last post, in case you missed it, marked fifty years since the arrival of Milton Keynes on the Buckinghamshire landscape – I couldn’t help but notice the same year in which the biggest New Town of them all appeared, a piece of legislation was introduced that eventually changed the lives of women in this country in a way that few pieces of legislation ever have.
The 1967 Abortion Act brought to an end (on the British mainland at least) the grim scenarios that were frequently fictionalised in British cinema during the years leading up to the Act. The sole moment in archetypal mid-60s Brit-flick ‘Alfie’ that Michael Caine’s title character loses his arrogant cocksure swagger is when, having impregnated the wife of a friend, he gazes at the aborted foetus ‘delivered’ by a loathsome backstreet abortionist and bursts into tears. By eavesdropping upon Alfie confronted by the consequences of his reckless actions, we see the male realisation of abortion’s ugly realities, just as the female perspective was graphically portrayed in the BBC TV play, ‘Up the Junction’, a year earlier.
As with the imprisonment of male homosexuals and the death penalty, the laws surrounding abortion immediately prior to the 1967 Act were in dire and urgent need of reform. Ineffective DIY remedies involving hot baths, knitting needles and a bottle of gin had been familiar means of attempting to induce miscarriages for years, along with more extreme practices such as engineering a fall down a flight of stairs. If all else failed, the ‘Vera Drake’ amateur abortionist was a familiar figure amongst women in the know throughout working-class neighbourhoods, whereas those with enough money could procure an illegal operation on Harley Street.
Although the contraceptive pill had been introduced in the early 60s, fears of encouraging unmarried promiscuity meant that it was only available to women with a ring on the third finger of their left hand; but even abstinence from pre-marital sex or avoiding embarking upon an affair couldn’t prevent the occasional unwanted pregnancy within a monogamous marriage, especially if social and financial circumstances meant the prospect of another mouth to feed filled the mother-to-be with horror.
The backstreet abortionist – often a qualified doctor who had either been struck off the medical register or one who greedily supplemented his income with an operation he knew could land him in prison – was an odious urban shadow haunting the netherworld of British society as much as the blackmailer of homosexuals in the first half of the twentieth century. At best, he could leave the women who went to him because they had nowhere else to go with permanent physical damage; at worst, he could kill them.
The grisly truth of the dearth of choice women had in this period was brought home to listeners on ‘Woman’s Hour’ yesterday, when an archive interview from the mid-60s was broadcast; in it, a working-class woman from Tyneside spoke candidly of her own experience of a backstreet abortion. That her account was told bereft of the tearful emotion that would probably accompany such a confession today somehow made that account all the more chilling, as did the juxtaposition of its grimness with the jolly chimes of an ice-cream van that could be detected in the distance as she recalled what had happened to her. It was far-from being an easy listen, but as an eye-opener of what women had to endure prior to 1967, it was a remarkable piece of radio.
Future Liberal leader David Steel, then a little-known backbencher, was the MP who introduced the Private Member’s Bill to legalise the termination of pregnancy, though he was supported by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government; it appointed Sir John Peel (President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the man who had delivered both Prince Andrew and Prince Edward) to chair a committee that recommended the Bill become law. After a debate in Parliament in which passionate opinions on both sides of the argument were aired, a free vote saw the proposal passed and it gained Royal Assent on 27 October 1967, becoming law as of 27 April 1968.
With the exception of Northern Ireland, the new law legalised abortion throughout Great Britain with a gestation cut-off point of 24 weeks. After the Act was passed, deaths as a result of abortions plummeted and the hideous spectre of the backstreet abortionist faded into history. The moral objections that accompanied the passage of the legislation through Parliament resurfaced as fanatical pressure groups, often of a religious bent; but fewer unwanted children were being born as a result, and fewer women were prematurely dying.
Yes, there is an irony that the anniversary of this British legislation’s introduction should coincide with the new tenant of the White House reviving Ronald Reagan’s old policy of cutting US funding for non-governmental organisations that offer advice on (or include) abortions in their overseas portfolios. As with promoting contraception in the developing world, such a service is one of the few ways in which the planet’s swelling population can be reduced; Christopher Hitchens made that point when justifying his campaign against Mother Theresa. But, while pro and anti camps will probably never be reconciled on this issue, the rights British women acquired half-a-century ago at least gave them something far more emancipating than tax-free tampons – actual control of their own bodies.
© The Editor