The 1967 Abortion Act, which was passed 50 years ago today, saved the lives of thousands of women. The Act, based on a private members’ bill by David Steel, set out specific circumstances that allowed women access to a legal abortion. It created exceptions to an Act from 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act, still standing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which makes abortion a criminal offence.
The act did not bring in abortion on request and women had to get the agreement of two doctors before an abortion was permitted. Yet from the day the act became law it has faced attack from the anti-abortion lobby and pro-choice campaigners have consistently had to defend not only the law but access to abortion as well.
Abortion Rights was formed in 2003 as a merger of Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) and the National Abortion Campaign (NAC). ALRA has been front of stage this week, with their lead activist Diane Munday appearing on Women’s Hour, the documentary made by Anne Robinson, Abortion on Trial and alongside me this week at a conference documenting the Act and its impact.
Abortion Rights stands on the shoulders of giants of all those who have fought in the past. Those who campaigned for and brought in the law as well as all those defended it— within trade unions, on the streets winning mass support for what is seen as (but shouldn’t be) a difficult issue. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime yet everywhere we look in culture and the media abortion is treated as a negative occurrence.
The ability to plan if, when and how many children we have, allows us access to so many of our other rights. Our ability to campaign for equal pay, against violence against women and for equal representation is all built on the ability to have control of our own bodies. We also believe that being pro-choice means ensuring that abortion is part of a free health care system that is not subject to postcode lotteries or misinformation from GPs.
On the other side those who oppose abortion rights call themselves ‘pro-life”. Yet this is a dishonest description of activists who take absolutist positions, who refuse to contemplate abortion in any circumstance even when the woman’s life is in danger. Such dogma leads to women dying—only five years ago Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital because she was refused an abortion that would have saved her life when she experienced complications in her pregnancy.
The strategy used by the anti-abortion lobby in recent years is to pretend to be generally pro-choice but to just want to correct or shave a little off abortion rights here and there. They try and claim the moral high ground about “human rights”. But there is nothing moral or conscientious about a campaign that encourages pickets outside abortion clinics to hand out materials containing anti-choice science lies – for example that abortion causes breast cancer. Those who seek to shame people in private and advocate forced pregnancies are bullies and harassers. Religion cannot be used to justify such actions. Abortion Rights recently set up Christians for Choice, the founders come from a broad section of Christianity and supporters include an MP and a Reverend. There is also a Facebook page for Muslims for Choice set up to highlight the breadth of views in one religion: Islam and abortion.
We find ourselves in interesting times. The government does not have an overall majority and the deal struck with the DUP created cracks in the wall. Theresa May had to cave in to the call for women from Northern Ireland to have access to NHS funded abortions in England to pass her Queen’s Speech. Now the government has also announced that some limited funds to aid travel and accommodation to England will also be available. Women in Northern Ireland still need to be able to access safe, legal and free abortion at home, but nevertheless these are significant changes that will assist women facing an unwanted pregnancy and help to expose the hypocrisy of barring abortion in one part of the UK.
There is a growing awareness of the injustice faced by women wanting to exercise their right to control their fertility. Labour MP Diana Johnson recently passed a successful Ten Minute Rule Bill that demonstrated that parliament is in favour of decriminalisation.
Diane Munday of ALRA recalls the celebrations at Westminster after the 1967 Act passed. She said then that their glasses of champagne should only be half full because although abortion became legal in certain circumstances, control was in the hands of doctors. The next task is to put control into women’s own hands. Abortion rights have become a central political issue today; this gives us a historic opportunity. Join Abortion Rights and our struggle and next time our champagne glasses will be full.
Abortion Rights has brought together a fantastic array of speakers spanning the life of the Act on a broad range of pro-choice debates including speakers from Ireland, academics, lawyers, and activists tomorrow (Saturday) in London. Come along and join the discussion,
For tickets and more information visit: www.bit.ly/AR28thOct
Kerry Abel, Abortion Rights Chair