Ella Staddon, Co Chair-Elect MT22
In 1967, David Steel brought forward the seventh attempt in 14 years to decriminalise abortion in the UK. Nearly word-perfect to the four attempts that had been introduced since 1965, it had been co-sponsored and drafted by Labour MP Renée Short, whose crusade to reform abortion law had begun upon her election. The act legalised abortion on certain grounds following authorisation from two registered practitioners in England, Wales and Scotland, with a conscience clause to allow doctors to refuse treatment on grounds of religious belief.
In October 1964, one of Labour’s most notorious feminist left-wing MPs Renée Short was elected to Parliament. Immediately taking up the cause of abortion law reform, in June 1965 she introduced a 10-Minute Rule Bill to decriminalise abortions. The Guardian reported that the bill had government backing, and was likely to pass through the Commons with little controversy, particularly due to widespread support for reform throughout the country. It passed unanimously with cross-party support in its first reading, and it would’ve passed its second reading unanimously had Labour MP William T Wells not blocked it. Later that same day, mere hours after backing Short’s bill at its second reading, the Home Secretary Sir Frank Soskice and the Minister of State for Home Affairs Alice Bacon decided to back Wells. The pair were adamant that the Home Office would not reform the law, and that they would only support reform if it was introduced as a Private Members Bill, claiming that as a 10-Minute Rule Bill it would not be properly debated. Their announcement made reform tricky, as Short and her allies now had to find people who had been balloted for a Private Members Bill to sacrifice their bill for the cause.
Unsurprisingly for the Labour party, Soskice and Bacon’s sudden change in attitude probably had less to do with wanting the issue to be debated, and more to do with factionalism. Soskice and Bacon were staunch Gaitskellites, as was Wells, who would later defect to the SDP. Short, on the other hand, was a notorious left-winger with known sympathies for nations within the USSR. It was rarely acknowledged that these sympathies were down to herself being the daughter of Russian, Hungarian and Romanian Jewish refugees, and her husband being a Romanian Jewish refugee himself.
By the end of 1965, support for abortion reform increased following the BBC’s Up the Junction, where the main character Rube becomes pregnant and seeks out a backstreet abortion which goes wrong. Abortion was depicted graphically, horrifying the nation. Of course, had Short’s bill not been blocked, the scenes depicted in the series may have been very different.
Short worked alongside all those who gave up their Private Member’s Bills to pursue the cause of abortion law reform. All the bills were co-sponsored by Short, who drafted most of them, and all were almost word-perfect to her own bill from 1965. Finally, in 1967, David Steel’s Private Members Bill passed on a free vote.
After the bill had passed, it took until April 1968 to be brought into law. It was only applicable to England, Wales and Scotland, and as Short discovered, regional differences in NHS care meant access to abortion services could be postcode dependent. Equally, many doctors used the conscience clause of the Act to refuse to perform abortions, making it difficult for women to access the healthcare they needed. Short repeatedly brought up the issue in the Commons, and in one instance was told by the Health Secretary she was talking nonsense, to which she retorted “it is not nonsense if a woman dies”.
Despite the promise of most political parties to remain neutral in the case of abortion, in 1975 Barbara Castle went against this after an attempt by anti-abortion MPs to heavily restrict the law. Going against an order from Harold Wilson to hide in her office and not speak her mind on the issue, she backed the Abortion Act in the house, fearing that the government’s silence on the issue would result in the law being revoked altogether. Since then there have been seven serious attempts, and many other less serious ones, to either repeal or reform the act to restrict abortions, most recently in 2022, when the government attempted to scrap at-home early medical terminations. Thankfully, each attempt has failed, in no small part due to the work of Labour MPs from all wings of the party.
The Abortion Act was not extended to Northern Ireland until 2019, and still to this day no abortion services are available in the country, having been blocked by the Northern Irish Health Secretary. When put to a vote in the Commons, 99 MPs voted to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland in 2019. Some of those same MPs currently sit at the highest levels of our government, including the Attorney General. In Scotland, no health board provides abortion services to the 24-week limit, forcing women to travel hundreds of miles to England to receive care. Regional differences in healthcare access across England and Wales, particularly in rural areas, result in people struggling to access any healthcare, let alone abortion services. Austerity cuts to the NHS mean that even in urban areas, everyone struggles to simply book a GP appointment, with the most low-income areas being the worse affected. On the Abortion Act’s 10th anniversary, Renée Short informed Parliament that the Abortion Act’s only scandal was the failure “to provide the necessary facilities for equitable treatment throughout the country, and it is a failure that needs a remedy.” 44 years on, her words still ring true.
It is easy to look at the United States, Poland or Malta and think how lucky we are to live in a country where the right to choose is protected by the law. But the law is merely empty words unless it is enforced across the country, providing access to abortion care to everyone who needs it. America has learnt the hard way what political complacency, ignorance, apathy and cynicism leads to. The Tories are counting on it keeping them in power, and it is our duty to make sure this does not happen.
“It has been estimated that there are about 100,000 illegal abortions a year, a terrible pool of human misery and unhappiness. The figure may well be higher, for there is a considerable amount of camouflage on medical certificates. Some of these abortions are brought about by women themselves using terrifying instruments to bring abortion about. Can the House stand a recital of the desperate lengths to which frightened women will go to prevent the continuation of an unwanted pregnancy? I quote from a report published in 1939 by the Government Abortion Committee: Things inserted in the womb, often with disastrous consequences, including knitting and darning needles, crochet and button hooks, pencils, scissors and hairpins, disinfectants, washing soda and other irritants, drugs which frequently damage the foetus without killing it, and other violent methods. Then there are those women who go to back-street abortionists and who have similar terrifying interference carried out in ghastly and dirty conditions. Damage is done to the unborn child, deformed babies often result, and sterility, and very frequently death.” -Renée Short, 1965