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Dilys Cossey AR AGM Speech AGM: Honouring the legacy of ALRA

Thank you for inviting me to your AGM.  It is indeed a privilege to be asked to honour the legacy of ALRA and I would like to talk about the major players in the 1960s campaign to reform the abortion law and about how we worked.

The four-year campaign to reform the abortion law (1964-68) resulting in the 1967 Abortion Act was an all-absorbing and intensive period, which not only awakened in me a lifelong interest in the workings of Westminster but set me on the path for the rest of my working life – most of it spent in birth control politics of one sort or another. This has included running the successful campaign for free contraception and voluntary vasectomy on the NHS, with the Birth Control Campaign, work with FPA, Brook, Birth Control Trust, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the all-party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive health, in paid and voluntary capacities at various stages. The thread running through all these is my profound belief in the fundamental importance of access to legal abortion and safe affordable contraception for women’s empowerment, sexual freedom and self-fulfilment. This belief was rooted in my experience as a sexually active single woman in this country and abroad in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In sexual health terms the 1950s, when I was growing up, were the Dark Ages. Contraception was not part of NHS provision – it was patchily available for married women through the FPA and some local authority clinics; abortion was illegal (I thought that Abortion Rights hit the jackpot with showing Mike Leigh’s film Vera Drake on 21 January – in my view an outstanding illustration of the situation); male same-sex relationships were illegal (women were supposed not to have same-sex relationships); divorce was difficult and expensive; the choices for single young women who got pregnant were a shotgun marriage or giving up your baby for adoption.  Many resorted to backstreet abortion. The wards of the large urban hospitals were full every Friday night with women bleeding after backstreet abortions.  Some died, many suffered long-term health problems.   Some gay men committed suicide.  Looking back sex for women, other than in heterosexual marriage, was closely connected with guilt, fear and shame.

Set against that background, my experience in 1961 just before I got married of visiting the FPA clinic in Walworth, South London, later a Brook clinic, is unsurprising. Alas, I did not sport a sparkling engagement ring on the third finger of my left hand, and the volunteer receptionist was suspicious, to say the least, thinking I was up to no good.  So, she grilled me not only on my personal details, but those of my intended, and of the date, time and place of our nuptials (deeply unfashionable Brixton Registry Office) and our future address.  Reluctantly I was allowed in and joined other women sitting minus knickers, suspender belts and stockings.  I finally got my diaphragm and cream, after a couple of brisk questions from the doctor about enjoying sex and when I was going to have a family.  I subsequently learned that care had been taken to check whether I actually did get married.

So, given all that, when in 1963, I saw an advertisement in the New Statesman for a part-time secretary for the Abortion Law Reform Association, working from home for £2 a week, I was definitely interested.  And that was it.  When Vera Houghton wrote offering me the job she said:  ‘The work tends to be spasmodic… but we don’t anticipate that it will amount to more than the equivalent of one day a week.  There may be…exceptional times when we are busy with a campaign’.  Well, of course, it was one long campaign!  And, for me, one long learning curve.

I joined ALRA at a time of change.  Stimulated by the thalidomide tragedy abortion was rising up the public agenda and with it the realisation that abortion was a major cause of maternal mortality and morbidity. ALRA, a small, dormant pressure group whose active time had been from 1936 to 1940 under the energetic leadership of three women, Janet Chance, Alice Jenkins and Stella Browne, was being taken in hand by two new young activists, Madeleine Simms and Diane Munday. They were impatient for action and thanks to them and their allies in 1963 they persuaded Vera Houghton to take the chair; Diane was elected vice-chair.  Vera brought to ALRA her ten years’ experience of setting up the International Planned Parenthood Federation, working with international family planning pioneers like Margaret Sanger, Lady Rama Rau and Helena Wright. Vera was key to ALRA’s success.  In their book Abortion Law Reformed, Hindell and Simms summed it all up: ‘Her work for the cause was more important than that of any other personality in the whole of the campaign’[1] but because of her dislike of personal publicity she was not well known.

ALRA’s strategy broadly was to reform the law by direct contact with Parliamentarians, by mobilising public opinion in favour of reform, by strengthening the organisation‘s capability through increasing individual membership and support from sympathetic organisations, and by publicising the need for reform in the media.  In effect to challenge the status quo and provide evidence to support our views.  As a start ALRA clarified its aims and then embarked on activities focussing on Parliament.  The outcome was that in the 1964-66 Parliament there were three Bills: two unsuccessful attempts in 1965 in the House of Commons (Renee Short, MP and Simon Wingfield Digby, MP) and one taken by Lord Silkin in the House of Lords, which went through all its stages – twice.  So this was all good preparation for the young  Liberal David (now Lord) Steel, MP, when just after the May 1966 election he drew third place in the Ballot for Private Members’ Bills and agreed to take abortion law reform.

From a group of young unknowns Vera Houghton built a successful campaigning team, each with their own area of operation.  Diane Munday, vice chairman, undertook the public speaking and spoke about her own abortion – revolutionary stuff in those days.  She reckons that in four years she made 250 major speeches. We worked with women’s organisations like the Townswomen’s Guilds, the National Council of Women, Co-op Women, Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.  The British Humanist Association and the Family Planning Association had numerous stalwart supporters in their ranks.   Madeleine Simms was ALRA’s press officer – writing many letters to the press under different identities.  It was not unknown for her to conduct a correspondence with herself.  She was responsible for the Newsletter, her own brainchild and a vital communication tool with members.  At the end of the campaign individual membership of ALRA stood at over 1,000, compared with the 200 or so at the beginning of the 1960s, and Newsletter circulation was 1,500.

There was Alastair Service, who was the Parliamentary lobbyist.   Whenever there was a bill under discussion (and most of the time there was) Alastair was down in Parliament buttonholing MPs and peers, sitting in Central Lobby with a copy of Dod’s Parliamentary Companion on his knees, trying to identify MPs from their photos as they hurried through. ALRA’s record of MPs’ and peers’ views was painstakingly built up through this personal contact.  Alastair reported on his encounter with the late George Brown, MP, who growled ‘Piss Off!’[2] when approached!

In the mid 1960s the Houses of Parliament were not the fortress they are today.  One could move in and out freely, just one benign policeman at St Stephen’s Entrance. Lord Steel called Alastair  ‘a one-man walking whip’s office’, without whose ‘steady vigilance and organising ability it is doubtful if the bill would have so readily passed’[3]. Alastair  would penetrate the farthest reaches of Parliament with confidence and aplomb. According to the late Chris Price MP[4] a certain House of Lords doorkeeper was under the impression that Alastair was the eldest son of a hereditary peer and so could wander at will.  Lord Steel commented that Alastair always looked like one!

Then there was Malcolm Potts, our bright young medic from Cambridge, a thoughtful and energetic campaigner, with first-rate speaking skills.  In 1967

ALRA sent him to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to collect information on their experience on providing abortion services – which of course we publicised.  He was and still is dedicated to providing safe abortion for women worldwide.

Dr Peter Draper, recently deceased, a public health doctor, Peter Darby, a local GP, obstetric and gynaecological consultants Peter Diggory and David Paintin (brave souls who nailed their colours to the mast), Martin Cole, an academic, John Hume, our designer, who gave us the ALRA style, all lower case, very trendy in the 1960s with the Greek alpha as our logo.  We used this style for all our literature.

I was the only ‘paid person’, running the office from home, a small flat in Kennington; my address and phone number were on the letterhead and in the phone book.  This was the public’s main contact with ALRA and as a result unwillingly pregnant women would telephone or turn up on the doorstep looking for an abortion.  Vera called me the ‘welfare officer’ as well as the administrator.  I had journalists too; for example Ken Loach visited to collect background material for his TV play based on Nell Dunn’s book Up the Junction.  We had several leaflets. What Help Can Alra give?  was for abortion queries and trod a careful line: no direct referrals, but our Advisory Council, which had medical members, were listed.   In Desperation was full of case histories, graphic illustrations of the need for reform.  We communicated with each other, with MPs, and with the press by phone, letter and, in extremis, telegram.  (I seem to remember resorting to telegrams in the final stages in the House of Lords). I had a manual typewriter, wrote letters and minutes, produced copies with carbon paper or by cutting stencils and taking them to an agency for reproduction, posted bundles of leaflets all over the country – and talked to women and anybody else who wanted information.  No e-mail, no computers, no smartphones, no Facebook, Google or Twitter.  At the height of the campaign Vera would phone me practically daily.

We lobbied Parliament, briefed MPs and peers, organised opinion polls, ran press conferences publicising their findings, had long discussions at executive committee meetings, supported the MPs and peers and attended debates and committee sessions.  Journalists increasingly turned to ALRA for information.

And at the centre was Vera co-ordinating, organising, advising, a diplomat par excellence.  Thanks to her we were a professional team, a targeted campaign and an operation which she conducted with skill, attention to detail and courtesy. It was four very intense years for us.  The lessons I took away from this seminal experience was that our success was built on focus, dedication, sound information and team work and that to succeed you need support from the political right and left – and sometimes it comes in the most surprising places.

The two Labour Governments (1964-66, 1966-70) were a major period of social and sexual reform:  capital punishment, divorce, homosexuality as well as abortion – all through Private Members’ Bills and with support from all sides of the House. The Prime Minister, the late Harold Wilson, did not take sides on abortion law reform.  When Vera raised the issue with him and commented that she had not seen him voting, he replied ‘And you won’t’ [5].

I could go on.  The past 50 years have been dedicated to defence of the Abortion Act, now the status quo, always a tricky business for those of us who like to challenge. But we should not stand still and be content with just defending:  I am a firm believer in the importance of challenging and pushing boundaries and I welcome warmly and support the campaign now to decriminalise abortion.  The advent of medical abortion has changed the nature of abortion provision and the knowledge and skills acquired in the last half century have made abortion and abortion provision a much more accessible subject.  The need for our old friend eternal vigilance to defend the Act will not go away, as events in America may well have an impact over here. There is still a legacy of shame and guilt which is exploited by the opposition. I take my hat off to Cathy Newman for her Channel 4 Dispatches Undercover programme last October exposing harassment of women by British abortion extremists outside a GP practice.

I’d like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the doughty and persistent pro-choice fighters in Northern Ireland.  I was involved in the first conference on abortion in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, held at the Slieve Donard Hotel and organised by the Europe region of the International Planned Parenthood Federation with the NI Family Planning Association.  Rumours had reached us that pickets would be flying in from the USA, so we put a couple of male ‘heavies’ on the door – one from Europe IPPF the other from the Irish FPA.  In the event all went off very peacefully.  But, as we are all aware, women in Northern Ireland continue to suffer terrible injustices.

But above all I would like to honour and pay tribute to the people with whom I worked on abortion law reform in the 1960s.  There are not many of us left and I cherish and value their memories and their achievements.

Thank you for inviting me to speak.  Good luck and more power to your elbow!

Dilys Cossey

Abortion Rights 2017 AGM/ revised


[1] Abortion Law Reformed, Madeleine Simms and Keith Hindell, Peter Owen Limited, 1971, p 118

[2] Abortion Law Reformers Pioneers of Change, bpas,2007, p.25

[3] Tribute at Alastair Service’s memorial meeting, 27 March 2015

[4] Witness Seminar on abortion, 10 July 2001, Institute of Contemporary British History 2002

[5] Abortion law reformers: Pioneers of Change, bpas, 2007, p. 31