Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Stella Browne – feminist, free spirit and pro-choice godmother

ImageDr Lesley Hall of the Wellcome Library writes about pioneering feminist and abortion rights campaigner Stella Browne, the subject of her new book:

Pro-choice advocacy in the UK owes an enormous debt to Stella Browne, the first woman in Britain to argue for the legalisation of abortion at a time when contraception was still discussed in hushed whispers.

During the 1920s, her colleagues in the birth control movement tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent her from introducing the subject into the campaign to permit contraceptive advice in maternity clinics, on the grounds that their struggle was uphill enough already.

However, once this aim had been achieved, several of them had been sufficiently persuaded by her arguments to join her in the fight to legalise abortion.

In 1937, giving evidence to the government Interdepartmental Committee on Abortion, Stella Browne told the committee that she knew from personal experience that abortion was neither fatal nor necessarily physically harmful. This was a very radical admission: campaigners normally spoke of abortion as the resort by desperate women to backstreet operators or profiteering Harley Street gynaecologists, rather than something that might be an issue in their own lives.

My own attention was first drawn to Stella Browne when I came across her in the records of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), when these were placed in what was then the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (now Archives and Manuscripts, Wellcome Library). These are a centrally important source for her involvement in this campaign, although the range of her interests and her wide international connections mean that writing her biography took me to other archives in Europe, North America, and Australia.

The importance of her contribution in raising the issue and keeping it alive within the wider campaign for reproductive control was recognised by contemporaries. In a chronology of the campaign for abortion law reform, Janet Chance of ALRA put ‘STELLA CAMPAIGNS ALONE’ as the sole entry between the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (the basis for the illegality of abortion in England and Wales) and the informal conference in 1935 that led to the foundation of ALRA. The American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger commented that ‘she doubtless knows more than any other woman’ on the subject.

Stella Browne saw abortion as one facet in women’s struggle to be accepted as free and equal citizens. Her 1935 contribution to Abortion: Three Essays placed the subject in a wider context, both of developments worldwide and of future possibilities of social and technological change. In this article she presciently anticipated the development of chemical abortifacients that women could self-administer.

It took many years to piece together the bigger picture of her life, which included activism in the suffrage movement, pacifism during the Great War, and membership of the Communist Party. This has now been told in my new biography of her, The Life and Times of Stella Browne: Feminist and Free Spirit, just published by I. B. Tauris, and available from Amazon.

Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library, London