Decriminalizing Desire And The Abortion Act 1967

The Abortion Act became law In England and Wales 50 years ago on 27 October 1967. Six months later the Act came into force and the termination of a pregnancy was legalised. Before then women and teenage girls committed a crime and would go to jail if caught aborting the foetus. There was an exception. If continuing with a pregnancy was life-threatening a psychiatrist could prescribe a termination. For those who could pay, it was possible to get round the criminal law by being certified as severely mentally ill. The overwhelming majority of women and girls with unwanted pregnancies did not have access to a psychiatrist or the hundreds of pounds it would cost for a diagnosis. Their only option was a backstreet abortion.

There were family planning clinics which advised on how not to get pregnant, but these were only available to married women and you had to show a marriage certificate to be allowed in. If you were unmarried you were barred. Assisting women and girls to avoid pregnancy was not a meaningful option. For those who were pregnant, the available choices were binary. Those who could not go through with their pregnancy were left with little or no choice but to abort and to commit a crime.

The criminal law was not the only obstacle to overcome. Surviving a backstreet abortion was like playing Russian roulette. Because the whole process was shrouded by criminality, reliable figures are hard to come by, but before the Second World War, at least fifteen percent of all maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions.

In her iconic 1960s novella, Up The Junction, Nell Dunn captures the reality of a backstreet abortion. First published in 1963, it wasn’t written as part of a pro-abortion campaign. The book is about every day life in working class south London. The Beatles hadn’t yet burst upon the scene. JFK was President. You follow the lives of various young women. Up The Junction is a compelling drama, but Nell Dunn is telling real people’s actual stories. What she writes is fact.

About two thirds of the way through, Rube, ’18 next month’ is looking for Winny. Winny’s a brassy character; she’s had her fair share of life. Men want Winny. Winny ‘was always on the bottle’. She has a shop but she does abortions too. Rube is pregnant. She doesn’t know how far gone she is but she tells Winny she’s three months. Rube tries to explain why she can’t keep the baby. ‘Don’t try and explain, love,’ says Winny ‘How can you ever explain anything? It’s the most bloody impossible thing in the world.’ Rube is told that the abortion will cost a fiver. All she has is £4. Winny agrees to do it for that. ‘When she does the syringe you feel a sort of weakening pain shoots up in yer…’ Rube says.

Rube has to go back to Winny seven times. The story telling is so vivid, it feels like you are sitting on the bus with Rube as she travels to Winny’s for yet more procedures. Eventually, Rube goes into labour: by now she is five months pregnant. She’s at home in the terraced cottage near Clapham Junction she shares with her mum ‘lying back against her mum’s knees, a green eiderdown covering her, white and heaving.’ A doctor is out of the question. ‘No, they might try and save the baby’. Rube’s mum says, ‘I don’t want no kids from that gink – we’ve enough kids in this house as it is without no more.’ Rube becomes semi-delirious. An ambulance is called. Somehow Rube manages to give birth. The baby breaths. ‘Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but they left behind the baby, which had now grown cold.’ ‘I reckon she had some pluck going seven times,’ says her mum.

Rube survives. The police don’t get involved. But Rube’s not the same after that. Her ordeal changes her.

It is unbelievable that any woman, let alone a teenager, should be forced to endure such demeaning, agonising and dangerous treatment. Rube was subjected to that torment because abortion was a crime. As a pregnant teenager, Rube should have been protected by the state, but instead she is shamed, stigmatised and left to fend for herself. She’s lucky. Her family end up supporting her. They get through it. And at least she lived and got away with her ‘crime’.

1967 was the year that changed so much. Before then the state criminalized desire. If you were a woman or teenage girl and had sex the chances of pregnancy were high. Once pregnant your real options were non-existent. Marriage was a way out if available, but it could be as devastating to life choices as terminating the pregnancy. Adoption brought its own trauma. Abortion turned women into criminals with all the disgrace associated with crime. Those women didn’t need to be arrested to be dishonoured. Surviving the backstreet abortion was, in many ways, the lesser of the harms caused by making abortion illegal.

By decriminalising abortion the stranglehold of the criminal law and how it controlled women was loosened. Did the spectre of the criminal law ever really haunt the men who got women pregnant in the same way that a woman with an unwanted pregnancy was tyrannized? And therefore with the Abortion Act 1967, along with access to safe abortions, a major shackle restraining notions of equality was unlocked. The playing field, as far as the criminal law was concerned, looked a lot more level. Since abortion was legalised teenage girls like Rube still get pregnant, but at least now their choices are real ones and being demeaned and degraded if they opt to terminate their pregnancy isn’t one of them.