‘Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide’. That was one the slogans shouted on the London demonstration last month against change in the abortion law.
But it’s clear that, even after 14 years of legal abortion, women don’t have the right to decide. At least eight out of ten of the abortions performed since the 1967 Abortion Act are now illegal. The decision to make abortion on social grounds illegal was taken by Gerard Vaughan, the Tory Minister of Health and a handful of highly paid, unaccountable civil servants.
Since 1976 one and a half million abortions have been performed. But women have always had abortions whether they are legal or not. In 1948 it was estimated that 250,000 illegal abortions were performed each year. Even in the year after the 1977 Act, there were 257 illegal abortions known to the police; in 1978 the figure was seven.
But now it looks like illegal abortions may now become more commonplace again, because of the change in the law, brought in last March.
The form used to notify the Department of Health and Social Security no longer includes space for non-medical grounds for abortion. Now gynecologists are required to fill in ‘the main medical condition present’.
A handful of doctors who are in favor of a women’s right to choose have written ’none’ in that space. Five were investigated by the police, and two have been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions who will decide shortly whether to press charges. If charges are brought for illegal abortion, they will be made under the offences against the person Act of 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of life.
Move this resolution through your next union branch meeting:
We reject the change in the 1967 Abortion Act slipped through Parliament in March 1981.
We call upon the TUC to organize a national campaign and a national demonstration involving all trade unionists, men and women to fight for the right to abortion for all women.
We call for the removal of health minister, Gerard Vaughan and the Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Henry Yellowlees.
We agree to support the mass picket of the Old Bailey in support of any doctor prosecuted under the new regulations.
KEEP IT LEGAL, SAFE AND EQUAL
WE ARE in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have a child. In order to make that choice a reality, there should be free abortion on demand, provided by the National Health Service.
The decision to have an abortion is often a difficult one. But it need not be a traumatic experience. Abortion is not a complicated or dangerous operation.
The safest and quickest way of performing an abortion is by ‘menstrual aspiration’. It’s not necessary to have a general anaesthetic – a small tube is inserted into the uterus and the fetus pumped. It takes no longer than a few minutes.
Unfortunately this is not the most common procedure for abortion. This method can only be used in the first few weeks of pregnancy – which is when nearly all abortions could be performed. But because of complexities of the 1967 Act, there are weeks of unnecessary delay in obtaining an abortion. A woman needs the consent of two doctors, and there’s often a waiting period in NHS clinics. That delay increases with the health service cuts – there are fewer hospital beds and fewer doctors and nurses employed by the NHS.
Abortion must be available to women because, apart from abstinence or sterillisation, there is no absolute guarantee of not getting pregnant. Lots of women can’t use the safest forms of contraception – the pill and the coil – for medical reasons. Young girls may not know about contraceptives or where they can get them.
Unless abortion is available on demand women cannot be equal. If you live with the fear that you may be forced to have an unwanted child, and the restrictions that will place on your life, you will never have equality.
But some women have always had abortion on demand. If you can pay for it, the Harley Street doctors will never ask you questions about your social circumstances or your mental stability – they’ll get on with the job for which they’re being paid for.
Its because abortion has always been available for the rich, and because working class women suffer most if they’re forced to have an unwanted child (rich women can always pay for a nanny), that abortion is a class issue, involving both men and women.
And because some women can’t continue with a pregnancy on the grounds of ‘social conditions’ – because they can’t give up their jobs, or their income is too low, or they live in overcrowded homes, or there are no nurseries, – abortion must be fought for hand in hand with the fight for better living condition.
‘I knew what was going on and I was very angry’
Dr Peter Huntingford faces possible trial for performing ‘illegal’ abortions on social grounds. This is part of an interview in Socialist worker (6 February 1982).
‘When I got the new forms I quite consciously wrote ‘none’ where, in my opinion the woman wasn’t physically or mentally ill. I knew knew what was going on and I was very angry.’
After having had several of the forms returned to him, Dr Huntingford was visited by two police officers from Scotland Yard.
‘They cautioned me – they said that anything I said could be used in evidence against me. I was questioned for two hours. It was like a medieval inquisition – they wanted me to recant. They had a form which said that I’d been wrong over the returned forms that they wanted me to sign. They were trying to get me to change my mind.
‘…But they’ve picked the wrong person for this. My attitudes have been so consistent, I’m probably the most committed doctor in this respect. If they could persuade me it would have a profound effect on doctors who don’t have such strong convictions as me. But I’m not prepared to prostitute myself or the women on whose behalf I act.
‘…Illegal abortions won’t be easy to come by either. The price of an abortion will double overnight – and it’s the women who can’t pay who will really suffer.
‘The backstreets just don’t exist anymore. Those illegal abortionists, who have lost their skills now, provide a social service. The abortions were dangerous, but no-one made a fortune, They were women from the same street, from the same background. That network of help just doesn’t exist any more.
‘It’s the Harley Street charlatans and the second-rate doctors in their shabby back room surgeries that I really object to.
‘The result of this change in the Act is that women will be forced to have babies they don’t want – and that will have a serious effect on people’s lives.
‘…Iv’e always said that if a government wants to restrict the Act, they can do so – and now they have. The political attitudes of those on power is very important. If there’s something they don’t like, they can change it. In this case they paid lip service by laying it before Parliament, so they don’t offend the democratic process, but there was no debate.
‘…They can’t back down now without backing down on the change in the form. The worst thing that could happen would be for me to ‘recant’, because then they’d say that even Peter Huntingford complies and therefore agrees.
‘in a sense what I did was absolutely private – it was a confidential form and they didn’t have to initiate all this. But now they’ve done it, I’m going to make as much noise as I can.
‘If it goes to a trial I’m sure public opinion will be on my side. As long as the government gets away with chiseling at our rights they’ll go on doing it. This is just the thin end of the wedge.
‘I haven’t done anything without thinking very hard about. Abortion should not be a crime. Although you can’t really imagine going to prison. I have thought about it. I think this is so important that it warrants that.’
Womens Voice, issue 61, March ’82