In an article introducing a publication celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, produced by the National Abortion Campaign & Marie Stopes, Claire Rayner sums up her commitment to the ongoing campaign for abortion rights in this country:
“For many years women of all ages and from all social backgrounds have contacted me asking for advice and support when their lives are falling down around them. One of the more common reasons for their distress is an unwanted pregnancy. Once upon a time the kind of advice women got in this situation was ‘Pull yourself together and get on with it’ or ‘It’s your own fault – you’ll just have to manage’. The consequences were enforced motherhood with all the miseries that brings to children as well as women, or illegal abortions carried out in appalling conditions. Dirty tables, unwashed hands wielding unsterile instruments, with no aftercare and the threat of imprisonment hovering over you were common.
Many women died and many others suffered ill health as a consequence of trying to control their fertility in this way (and remember, access to contraceptive advice was tightly controlled too). As a very young nurse in the 1950s the first body I had to lay out was that of a girl not much older than I was, who’d died of a ‘backstreet abortion’. That is why I have always supported the rights of women to have legal abortions if they need it. The alternative is too horrible for a civilised society to tolerate.
Nowadays we assume women have complete control and the horrors of the backstreets are far away and long ago. Unfortunately for many women in modern Britain this is not the case.
While the 1967 Act was a landmark in the history of women’s rights in Britain, even today many women have no access to abortion – whether it’s because of their local health authority denying them access on grounds of money or their GPs denying them access because of their beliefs, sadly women are still not in control of their bodies.
This book celebrate a piece of legislation that transformed women’s lives. I believe that whether or not you would consider having an abortion, no woman should be subjected to the horrors of the backstreet abortionist ever again. The National Abortion Campaign and Marie Stopes International, by publishing these accounts of ordinary women and their experiences, seek to end the silence surrounding abortion and bring the debate into the open.
As an ex-nurse and agony aunt I have witnessed the grief and distress unwanted pregnancies bring. Let us bring the law into the 21st century where it belongs. It’s time to put the decision firmly in the hands of those affected by the decision – this means women making up their own minds about their bodies and their lives. We all know we are capable enough to do this. What we need is for the law to recognise this too.
The choice we face is stark. It is not legal abortion or no abortion; it is legal abortion or dangerous, killing backstreet abortion. We can and we must legislate to stop unsafe procedures and to minimise the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy . A change in the law to give women the decision making regarding abortion means that Britain will become a better place for women to live and that every child born in Britain will be a wanted child. What a way to celebrate the Millennium!"
From ‘Voices for Choice: Women recollect their experiences of abortion in Britain 1936-1997’.