Archive article from The Socialist Issue 274
35 years after the Abortion Act
For A Real Right To Choose
THE 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion on social grounds as well as purely health grounds, was a big step forward in women’s struggle for reproductive rights – for the right to end an unwanted pregnancy. Its introduction is a testament to the determination of women in the labour movement and other campaigners for women’s rights to end the suffering caused by illegal, ‘back street’ abortions.
Opponents of abortion rights talk as if abortion did not happen in this country before 1967 but nothing could be further from the truth. Reliable estimates put the number of abortions in the years leading up to 1967 at 100,000 a year, the same as in 1971, four years after legalisation.
These illegal abortions were usually carried out by unskilled people under unhygienic conditions, and thousands of women each year died or were left with permanent health problems after suffering haemorrhaging or infection from a ‘bodged’ abortion.
Many were too scared to seek medical attention as they risked prison by doing so.
The Abortion Act was introduced at a time of economic boom when women were starting to work outside the home in greater numbers, were growing in confidence and demanding recognition of their role and rights within society.
This same process gave rise to legislation on equal pay and sex discrimination.
Although the wording of the Act itself is pretty restrictive, in practice it allowed abortion on social grounds. In other words, factors such as inadequate housing, domestic violence, poverty and family stress could be taken into account in allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy.
The Act today is interpreted quite widely, reflecting changes in social attitudes on abortion. In a recent poll 77% of people (81% women and 72% men) supported a woman’s right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy. But the law as it stands does not give a woman the right to choose whether to continue with her pregnancy. It requires two doctors to certify that a woman can have a termination.
This causes unnecessary delays in obtaining abortions. In Sweden, for example, where abortion is available on any grounds up to the eighteenth week of pregnancy, 95% of terminations are carried out before the twelfth week of pregnancy, whereas in this country only 89% are. Research and statistics show that earlier abortions are safer and less traumatic for women.
The current law also leaves women vulnerable to the personal beliefs/prejudice of the doctors. A recent National Abortion Campaign (NAC) survey found that nearly a quarter of GPs do not think that abortion should be available on the NHS.
The current law should be amended to remove the need for the doctors’ signatures. In reality the doctors are not making a medical decision.
If there are medical reasons why an abortion is not advisable then a doctor’s opinion is relevant. As to whether to continue with a pregnancy the choice should rest with the woman – with support and advice available to her.
This is not a particularly far reaching demand given that 50 countries containing 41% of the world’s population currently allow abortion with no restriction on grounds (reasons) generally up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
But as we know only too well, legal rights are only half the battle. One of the biggest problems of the 1967 Act was that it did not make provision for extra NHS funding or facilities for abortions.
Women seeking a termination face the problem not only of whether their GP is pro or anti-choice, but whether their health authority will fund an abortion. NHS statistics from 1999 (the most recent available) show that 98% of abortions are funded by the NHS in Scotland, 86% in Wales, but only 74% in England.
To put it another way a quarter of women in England have to pay for their abortion. Within England there are wide variations in availability from region to region. London is particularly bad with only 64% of abortions on the NHS.
There should be proper funding and expansion of abortion facilities so that women don’t face the current ‘abortion lottery’ depending on where they live and to ensure that they do not face unnecessary and often traumatic delays due to shortages of staff, beds or facilities.
Women should have the right to choose when and whether to have children. No matter what a woman’s circumstances are, she should have the right to decide whether to continue with her pregnancy.
But having real choice is a wider question. It also means having access to free, safe contraception and advice to prevent pregnancy, as well as fertility treatment on the NHS for those that are unable to have children.
Under the present system too many women do not face a genuine choice. For this right to be a concrete one, society needs to be organised differently so that having a child does not lead to a drop in income, poverty, and social exclusion.
Benefits for children should reflect the real cost of bringing up a child and there should be good quality childcare available not just for work but for some social life, as well as affordable housing. In short, we need the genuinely family-friendly policies contained in our socialist programme.
What The 1967 Act Says….
Abortion can be carried out in England, Scotland and Wales (not Northern Ireland) if two doctors agree that the woman is less than 28 weeks pregnant (amended to less then 24 weeks in 1990 as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act) and if continuing with the pregnancy would involve risk to her physical or mental health greater than if the pregnancy was terminated.
There is no time limit if the woman’s life is in danger or there is a risk of grave harm to health or in cases of foetal abnormality.
WHAT WE STAND FOR: