The STUC Women’s Committee and Conferences have been at the forefront of campaigning for women’s reproductive health rights. From the very earliest days, trade union women have argued for public funding for maternal and child health clinics, and for access to safe and legal abortion services that do not place women’s lives at risk. In 1979 it was the TUC that led the biggest demonstration ever on the streets of London, against the Corrie Bill, which sought to restrict access to abortion.
Given the strength of feeling on this issue, and the controversy which it always seems to stir up despite the vast majority of people in the UK supporting women’s access to safe, legal, and free, abortion services, it is surprising there has been so little conversation in the context of the forthcoming independence Referendum in Scotland.
The media and referendum campaigners have focussed intently for months now, on women’s voting intentions and concerns, yet the silence on women’s sexual health and reproductive rights has been quite remarkable.
Political parties, have been setting out their stalls for ‘the women’s vote.’ This involves calls for childcare provision, equal pay, fair wages, an end to harassment and discrimination, and equal representation in public life.
What about the rights for women to control their own fertility, for access to birth control and sexual health advice, for legal, safe and free abortion services, and of course provision of excellent maternity services with good ante and post natal care, with all the support for girls and women to make the decisions that are right for them and their families?
It is only 46 years since the 1967 Abortion Act came onto the statute book, putting an end to dangerous and illegal backstreet abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. It should be remembered here that it is to our collective shame that this legislation has never been extended to the North of Ireland, and each year thousands of women make the journey to England, Scotland and Wales to access abortion services that are freely available to all other UK citizens.
Women and men from Scotland have played a key part in speaking up for women’s health needs, for birth control and abortion services. However, vociferous opposition has also been a feature of the ‘Scottish’ contribution.
Marie Stopes, who with her husband Humphrey Roe, founded the first birth control clinic in London in 1921, was born in Edinburgh 15 October 1880. Her mother, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, had also been born in Edinburgh, in 1841, and was one of the earliest campaigners for women’s equality in education and in science, giving her daughter a good base from which to start her own battles for women’s sexual and reproductive health.
In the 1920s as the clamour grew for women to be able to access birth control, particularly working class women, the 1924 Labour Party Conference endorsed this policy by one thousand votes to eight. However, with the Minister of Health John Wheatley, Labour MP for Glasgow Shettleston, implacably opposed, it was not until 1930 that the Health Department published some limited guidelines allowing birth control advice through maternal and child health clinics.
The Abortion Law Reform Association, ALRA, founded in 1936, was the forerunner for the Abortion Act 1967, for which David Steele, then an MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, took responsibility. The names of three committed feminists, Janet Chance, Stella Browne, and Alice Jenkins should also be remembered, having taken the initiative in 1936 to found ALRA. Another Scottish connection revealed, as Janet Chance was the daughter of an Edinburgh Presbyterian Minister.
The 1967 Abortion Act saved the lives of thousands of women, and stopped many more from ending up requiring emergency surgery and hospital treatment. It is one of the most significant pieces of public health legislation in England, Scotland and Wales, in the last hundred years.
However, anti-abortion MPs have repeatedly sought to amend it, to make it more restrictive. Again we can see strong Scottish influence: John Corrie MP for Bute and North Ayrshire, introduced a restrictive Bill against abortion in 1979; and James White, MP for Glasgow Pollok was strongly anti-abortion and made several attempts to amend the 67 Act; and every time restrictions were proposed, they were supported by a majority of those MPs who represented Scottish constituencies. But Maria Fyfe, newly elected as an MP for Glasgow Maryhill in 1987, chose to speak up loudly for women’s rights on abortion and against the restrictive Alton Bill, in 1988. The STUC turned out in great numbers on a demonstration in Glasgow, and a packed Glasgow City Halls heard speeches from a number of labour and trade union leaders, including Maria Fyfe, Jo Richardson MP, and Yvonne Strachan TGWU Women’s Officer /STUC Women’s Committee.
We can expect the trade union movement to continue in that tradition, and the importance of that voice should not be underestimated. Let’s remember those working women from the past who spoke out – for example, Annie Besant, renowned for her role in the Matchgirls Strike of 1888, had in the 1870s produced a pamphlet on birth control, for which she faced court proceedings, and subsequently, lost custody of her own daughter, apparently deemed not to be a fit parent. Her legacy and that of other committed women and men, must be recognised, and voices heard again on this issue.
And we can’t afford to remain silent. Past evidence shows that proposals for restrictive legislation will come again. In Spain today, the much celebrated 2010 legislation on abortion is about to be dismantled by the current Government, and women and trade unions are out on the campaign trail again.
Here it is time to develop a more progressive framework, recognising that women should be able to make their own decisions, not only about voting, but about their bodies.
Abortion Rights Executive Committee
A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star 9th Sept 2014