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Forty years after the 1967 Abortion Act
Do women still have the 'right to choose'?
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. The reform was won by women who, increasingly confident as they became active in the workplace, demanded recognition for their role in society and the right to control their own fertility. Elaine Brunskill looks at the state of the 'right to choose' in 2007 as it comes under increasing attack.
Prior to the 1967 Act abortions were permitted on medical grounds if a doctor deemed a woman's health to be seriously threatened. This meant wealthy women could get around the law by attending private clinics.
However, for working-class women the only option to terminate an unwanted pregnancy was to resort to the horror of an illegal back-street abortion. In 1937 it is estimated that around 150,000 illegal abortions were carried out, resulting in 411 deaths.
In 1965, 3,050 women suffered post-abortion sepsis, resulting from botched abortions. Pressure to legalise abortion mounted as growing numbers of women, victims of back-street abortions, arrived in casualty departments across the country.
Funding, however, has never been properly allocated to efficiently and effectively carry out the terms of the 1967 Act. Currently, although the NHS pays for four out of five terminations, half of these are carried out by private and voluntary sector providers.
Undoubtedly, this has the impact of increasing the expense to the NHS, and increasing the pressure to limit abortions on grounds of cost. Underfunding has also affected contraceptive services that help women to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
A 2007 study for the Department of Health found that the average spend on community contraceptive services (including primary care prescriptions and emergency contraception) for PCTs who responded, was £11.67 per female aged 15-49 and an article in The Guardian showed that in some areas this plummets to 18 pence.
Having made the decision to end a pregnancy, women can then be faced with a GP's refusal to sign an abortion form. According to a poll by the doctors' journal Pulse, almost one in five GPs does not believe abortion should be legal. A clinical researcher from Newcastle University has called access to abortions a 'lottery for women'.
The issues of funding of contraceptive services and NHS terminations are extremely important for working-class women, as well as the question of GPs refusing to cooperate when an abortion is requested.
Before the Abortion Act was introduced some women living on the breadline were prepared to do anything rather than have an unplanned pregnancy. If cuts in NHS funding result in swathes of women facing unwanted births we could again see the emergence of illegal back-street abortions.
Another problem facing women is that in the forty years since the 1967 Abortion Act a rearguard battle has been necessary to defend the 'right to choose' against a well-funded minority who have continually tried to have the Abortion Act repealed.
However, a recent survey commissioned by Abortion Rights and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust shows that 77% of those questioned support a woman's right to choose in the first three months of pregnancy. Only 3% agreed with the statement that "under no circumstances would it be acceptable to have an abortion".
So-called 'pro-life' groups realise that the majority of the population do not want abortions criminalised. They use emotive language and images attempting to shift the debate to the issue of late abortions, with the aim of chipping away at women's right to choose.
However, late terminations are extremely rare, with only 0.6% between 22 and 24 weeks. In contrast 90% of abortions take place in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
Women do not choose to have late abortions, but circumstances can mean an early termination is not an option. For example a study by Southampton and Kent Universities found that half of the women who had abortions between 13 and 24 weeks had not realised they were pregnant at three months or earlier.
There are many reasons for women being unaware of their pregnancy. This may be due to factors such as failed contraceptive or older women going through the menopause.
Two in five women seeking late abortion said their periods had continued during the early stages of the pregnancy. Another factor can be very young women who refuse to believe they could be pregnant.
Marie Stopes International (MSI), a charity which provides family planning and abortion services, points out that some women are in denial or are forced to re-evaluate their pregnancy due to significant changes in their circumstances.
Furthermore, many of the women who spoke to MSI had not thought they would ever undergo an abortion. Many of them commented that it is not possible to make a judgement until you find yourself in the position of having an unwanted pregnancy.
Problems can also arise due to a delay while women look at all the options open to them, including whether or not to seek an abortion.
Having made a decision to terminate their pregnancy almost two-thirds reported that a significant period elapsed between their request for an abortion and the pregnancy being terminated.
This is despite medical guidelines highlighting the need for urgency at this stage. Government recommendations state that women should not have to wait longer than three weeks for a termination once a woman has been referred by a doctor. 27% of Primary Care Trusts delay women longer than 21 days.
Having made a late decision to have a termination women are faced with the problem that the NHS contracts out almost all of this work. Nationally only about a dozen clinics specialise in late abortions.
In reality 'pro-life' campaigners want to do far more than just chip away at the time limit on abortion. Recently on BBC Radio 4's Today programme a Catholic Archbishop admitted that he would 'much prefer' banning abortions altogether.
A quarrel has also emerged over the issue of abortion rights between the Catholic Church and Amnesty International. Senior members of the Catholic Church in Britain and Rome called for a withdrawal of support from Amnesty International over its recent policy change to defend women in war-torn countries who decide to terminate a pregnancy following rape.
Amnesty highlighted Darfur as a country where military conquerors have used mass rape. Not only are woman traumatised, but if pregnant, are then often disowned by their families, left to cope alone with unwanted children. The Catholic Church would ban abortions even under these brutal circumstances.
For many pro-life campaigners abortion is not the only thing they want to ban. Cardinal O'Brien who likened the number of abortions taking place in Scotland as 'Two Dunblanes a day' has also spoken out against sex education for children as being an 'abuse'.
Caitlin Moran, columnist in The Times commented that with "Cardinal O'Brien simultaneously vetoing contraception, abortion and sex education, it seems that, in 2007, the Catholic hardliners are reverting to a more old-fashioned ideal of women: that they remain virgins until they decide to be mothers, and that they then mother, without cease, until they drop."
The 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion act sees the right of women to choose under attack, both from 'pro-life' groups and from cuts in the NHS. Denying access to NHS abortions leaves women in a very vulnerable position.
Because of the stigma attached to abortion it can be difficult, for example, to go to the press to reveal the rotten state of services in their area. This means it is vital that a woman's right to choose whether to go ahead with a pregnancy or not is taken up by socialists and trade unionists as a class issue.
- Defend abortion rights. Abortion to be available on request so women can choose when and whether to have children.
- Major investment into contraceptive services.
- Decent funding for a sex education programme aimed at school students and other young people.
- Rebuild the NHS free at the point of use and under democratic workers control.
In The Socialist 25 October 2007:
Campaign for a New Workers Party
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party news and analysis
Workplace news and analysis