50 years of the 1967 Abortion Act

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A banner with the infamous coat hanger symbol

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act in Great Britain, yet women in Great Britain could still be criminalised for their decision to have an abortion.

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Have you ever thought about how you would feel if you fell pregnant?

The law on abortion in Great Britain could soon become less restrictive. MP Diana Johnson took her Ten-Minute rule bill to decriminalise abortion to the House of Commons on March 13.

A campaign by the British Pregnancy Advisory Services (BPAS) named We Trust Women have been guiding the support for the bill. Head of Advocacy and campaigns, Abigail Fitzgibbon thought it would take ten years before they saw any change and that ‘the ten minute rule is beyond our wildest dreams.’

MP’s backed the vote with 172 votes in favour versus 142 against.

The 1967 Abortion Act came into effect 50 years ago. If you were ‘a girl in trouble’ before 1967 your decision to keep or terminate the pregnancy would have ‘legally’ been out of your hands.

It was a question of class.

If you had money and could convince a psychiatrist to give you written consent that you were not mentally able to carry on with the pregnancy, then you could terminate your pregnancy. But at a price. If you weren’t financially able then you may have turned to a ‘backstreet abortion’ putting your health and life in danger.

Britain’s first-ever consultant in reproductive health, Dr Rosemary Kirkman, knows all too well what the situation was like before 1967. Her experiences lead her to recognise the importance of the Abortion Act in Great Britain. She recalls ‘on a Monday morning all the gynecology wards would be full up of women with septic abortions. They got kidney failure, they got septicemia, they needed dialysis, they needed emergency care. They actually used far more NHS facilities than ever there are nowadays even with the greater number of legal abortions.’

Backstreet abortions tended to be performed by women with either little or no nursing knowledge or could be performed yourself. From soapy water to the infamous knitting needles or coat hangers, backstreet abortions were far from safe. You could be prosecuted for your actions through the 1881 Offences Against the Persons Act.

While the 1967 Abortion Act made abortion legal it still has restrictions.

Abortion in Great Britain is also still governed by the same 1881 act which criminalises abortion, meaning the 1967 act only provides a defence for those who have abortions or the doctors who perform them. If you procured your own abortion at home even through pills bought online, you could face a prison sentence.

In 1974 Mary Redcliffe interviewed a woman from Newcastle who had a backstreet abortion in her own home. She already had a child and felt it was impossible to have another. After finding a woman who she knew performed abortions she asked for her help. She was told to buy a household syringe, some antiseptic and some ordinary soap. Along with boiling water that was all that was needed.

The process was fairly simple but caused a lot of pain and is extremely dangerous. The syringe is inserted into her and the other side, which is squeezed, is in the bowl of boiling water and soap. The pain she experienced was described as agonising and ‘worse than childbirth.’

As the abortion was not performed by a professional, the only pain relief she was offered was a cup of tea, a cigarette and some brandy. When the pain became unbearable she needed the help of a doctor, the woman who performed the abortion was very withdrawn but eventually made an anonymous phone call and never returned to see how she was.  Her backstreet abortion ended up costing her a months worth of pain and her job.

You can listen to the full interview here

Variations on this story echo throughout Great Britain before 1967 with around 35,000 women being treated annually when backstreet abortions go wrong.

Dr Maggie Eisner worked as a GP in Shipley, West Yorkshire throughout the 70’s. She sees many differences between the patients she saw then and now. She believes people request terminations much sooner due to increased awareness and availability of pregnancy tests.

This is true as in 2015 92% of terminations were carried out under 13 weeks gestation.

Eisner then goes on to describe how she believes that attitudes in the medical profession has also changed as ‘GP’s are trained to be much more patient centered’ they are much more sympathetic and women do not need to justify their decisions as much.

The decision to have an abortion is never easy and that decision stays with you all of your life. Bridget Maguire had an abortion in the 1970’s. She believes it changed her life for the better explaining, ‘It was inconceivable at that age and that point in my life to have a child.’ she goes on to say how the abortion was just something she had to do.

Currently in Great Britain a woman seeking an abortion must have the permission of two doctors who both agree on one of the grounds for Abortion under Section 1 of the Abortion Act:

  • A. The continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater than if the pregnancy were terminated.
  • B. The termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
  • C. The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.
  • D. The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing children of the family of the pregnant woman.
  • E. There is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped. Or, in an emergency, certified by the operating practitioner as immediately necessary.
  • F. To save the life of the pregnant woman.
  • G. To prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

The latest statistics  for abortions carried out in England, Scotland and Wales were published by the Department of Health in May 2016. They found that 98% of abortions were performed under Ground C and only 2% under ground E.

Technically in Great Britain if you have an abortion without meeting one of these criteria and getting permission from two doctors, you are committing a criminal offence. Although hardly anyone is turned away for their choice to have an abortion, there is argument that it still needs to be decriminalised.

In many countries around the world abortion is legal, with no restrictions what so ever.

As the laws that govern abortion here are so old (the 19th century) there was no foreseeing the impact of the internet. Women were once forced to the back streets but in the age of the internet they would undoubtedly end up online. As Dr Prabha Sivaraman, a member of the Doctors for a woman’s choice on abortion said ‘if we don’t liberalise the law, a new set of problems will come up.’

Doctors for a woman’s choice on abortion is a group that set up in 1976 with the aim of showing the public and MP’s that a number of doctors want a change in law to give women the right to make the abortion decision themselves.

It won’t come as much of a surprise that you can now buy abortion pills online. WomenonWeb.org is just one of the websites that sell abortion pills and in the last year 645 amount of pills were intercepted by customs compared to just 5 in 2013. If abortion becomes legal in Great Britain it is hoped that it will regulate and keep abortions safe. Especially for those who can not easily access abortion clinics because of distance or not being able to take the time out to go to appointments.

As one of the first countries in Europe to become forward thinking about abortion rights, it seems strange to most that we now have restrictions on abortions where other countries do not. The 1967 Abortion Act applies to women in England, Wales and Scotland but not Northern Ireland.

The future of abortions in Great Britain is hotly debated.

The anti-abortionists are discovering new ways to vocalise their views, taking inspiration from their American counterparts. While the pro-choice groups are fighting to decriminalise abortion here in Great Britain .

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Kathrynn Attwood is a member of one of the anti abortion groups based in Great Britain called abort67. She believes that the group are ‘working to expose abortion so that the next generation don’t face the same pain as the last’ meaning that they want to educate the public on the ‘truth’ of abortion and get rid of the Abortion Act.

On the other side of the argument pro-choice organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) have many campaigns to try to liberate women’s rights in Great Britain and make strides for the pro-choice movement. One of their campaigns is the We Trust Women campaign. Their aim is to decriminalise abortion as a law passed 136 years ago in the 19th century is still governing the women of Great Britain today and many don’t realise it.

We Trust Women have many supporters one of which being the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) who say that the ‘Victorian legislation is still deeply affecting women in 21st century.’ Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive of the RCM, gives the campaign full support saying  ‘the law should not be potentially criminalising women for their decision. The system should be offering support and care, not obstacles.’

The Women’s Equality Party are also supporters, party leader Sophie Walker said ‘It is time for Britain to catch up and to acknowledge that women know what is best for themselves and their families.’ She believes that 21st century women should be trusted to make their own decisions.

Dr Sivaraman as part of Doctors for a woman’s choice also supports this campaign, she believes ‘if doctors don’t give voice to women, women will not be able to survive. Women will die like flies.’

She says this because while the anti-abortion movement can be described as being ‘loud’ and can grab a lot of media attention. With one in three women having an abortion within their lifetime it seems odd that the pro-choice movement is seen as quieter in comparison.

It is this silence that Amelia Bonow believes anti abortionists are manipulating for their own gain. Bonow became an internet sensation in September 2015, when she decided to share her abortion experience on social media, the #shoutyourabortion started trending around the world in a matter of hours with women all over the world using the hashtag to talk about their experiences.

Many in the UK already thought that abortion was legal. When MP Diana Johnson hit the headlines in March with her bill to decriminalise abortion, it made many open their eyes as to the state of legalisation in this country.

In her bill she set out that she wanted to decriminalise abortion claiming that the ‘Victorian’ abortion laws should be scrapped.

During her speech she talks of how no other medical procedure in this country is governed by legislation this old.

She has also mentions the abortion pills being sold online and how she hopes that women who cannot access doctors easily could speak to a GP online, be assessed and prescribed the pills in a regulated safe way.

Andrew Stephenson, founder of the anti-abortion group abort67 is fairly confident that the bill will amount to nothing stating ‘The public shouldn’t be deceived by how manipulative the abortion industry are. This was just a first reading’

The bill will go on to a further reading on March 24 before it is passed into law.

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