Abortion became legal in the UK when I was a child – 1967.
I grew up with tales of knitting needles, bottles of gin, and hot baths. The amateur method of choice for pregnant women who didn’t want to give birth, for whatever reason. Their only other alternative was a back-street abortionist who may, or may not, have been a qualified doctor.
As abortion raises temperatures and inspires much rhetoric, much of it from people who seem to want to tell women what to do with their bodies, I thought a look at some history and some facts might be worthwhile. Sources listed below.
Firstly, and hardly surprisingly, given the Christian god’s approval of abortion in the Old Testament, records show that the church was not against abortion. Please note, NOT, against abortion.
Do I need to repeat that?
The first references to abortion in English law appeared in the 13th Century. The law followed Church teaching that abortion was acceptable until ‘quickening’, which, it was believed, was when the soul entered the foetus. The legal situation remained like this for centuries.
For the benefit of those slow on maths, the church was accepting abortion in the 1200s. That’s 800 years ago. And, as it was before the Reformation, we are talking the Catholic Church here. So no, Catholic Church, you have not always opposed abortion.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the law surrounding abortion suddenly became much tighter, and women in Great Britain and America found their freedom of access to abortion severely restricted.
In 1803, the Ellenborough Act introduced the death penalty (or transportation) for performing, attempting, or causing an abortion post ‘quickening’.
And by 1837, the act was amended to remove the quickening distinction so all abortions became illegal.
In 1861 performing an abortion or trying to self-abort carried the mere sentence of life imprisonment.
By 1929 a new act was established, making it a crime to kill a viable foetus ie 28 weeks. The law was vague about the position pre 28 weeks.
Thousands of women resorted to back-street abortionists, permanently damaging their health or dying. Newspapers advertised cures for ‘menstrual blockages’, but women knew they were abortifacients. Many of these were ineffective and were also poisonous; one of the cheapest, a lead-based potion, poisoned and blinded many women.
Fifteen per cent of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortion.
“In the thirties, my aunt died self-aborting. She had three children and couldn’t feed a fourth … So she used a knitting needle. She died of septicaemia leaving her children motherless.”
Well, that’s really helpful isn’t it?
On 27 April 1938 a girl of fourteen was raped. She was taken to see Dr Joan Malleson, a member of the medico-legal council of the Abortion Law Reform Association, who contacted a fellow council member, Dr Aleck Bourne, obstetric surgeon to St Mary’s Hospital. He replied:
I shall be delighted to take her in at St. Mary’s and curette her. I have done that before and shall not have the slightest hesitation in doing it again. I have said that the next time I have the opportunity I will write to the Attorney-General and invite him to take action.
On 31 May, the girl was taken to see Dr Bourne by her mother. A letter of consent to the proposed operation was then obtained from her father. Bourne then saw Dr Wingate, a resident obstetric officer at St Mary’s and informed him of his reasons for operating, namely that the girl was under the age of consent and had been raped. On 6 June she was admitted to the hospital. A pregnancy test proved positive.
Don’t you love the small print where a letter of consent was needed from the father? We’ve still got men owning women back in 1938.
In a landmark case, Dr. Alex Bourne was acquitted of having performed an illegal abortion. He believed that abortion should be legal in exceptional circumstances and, most courageously, admitted having performed an abortion for a gang-raped 14-year-old who was suicidal. He argued that the law did permit abortion before 28 weeks and did allow abortion when a woman’s mental or physical health was in danger. The court agreed that this was a life-threatening situation and acquitted Dr Bourne. As a result some women were able to get a safe abortion. However, uncertainty remained as a psychiatrist’s approval was needed. It was usually only educated and/or relatively wealthy women who had the resources to find, and pay for, a compliant psychiatrist.
Ironically after aborting the teenager’s child he became a pro-life activist.
But let’s remember this:
In 14 June 1938, Bourne was arrested after performing an operation without fee at St Mary’s Hospital to terminate the pregnancy of six weeks of a 14-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by five off-duty British soldiers, officers in the Royal Horse Guards, in a London barracks
Can you imagine that? A 14-year-old raped by five soldiers?
And sexually assaulted? Faulty language there. Try rape. Rape results in pregnancy.
But let’s look at how other women managed:
The most common advice for getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy was gin and a hot bath. Many unmarried pregnant women who knew little of contraceptives knew about the old ‘gin and a hot bath’ remedy. Though many were unclear on how much gin to take, whether or not a hot bath was also required, and whether the gin itself should also be hot. One doctor’s medical advice after confirming a woman’s pregnancy was, ‘have some gin and a hot bath, perhaps try falling down the stairs a few times.’
Some were offered douche cans by their doctors, or acquired them on their own, but the douching failed to bring about miscarriage. Others mentioned knitting needles and crochet hooks, though they did not attempt these methods. Abortifacient suggestions were quietly passed between desperate women, which beyond those mentioned above also included pennyroyal, salts, slippery elm bark, leeches, deliberate injury (such as falling down stairs), caustic soap and syringe.
Then there was slippery elm and the leech. The leech you’d put inside you and then it would attack the womb, and open the womb up, and of course you’d lose the baby then. I know one of my aunties done it.
And anti-abortionists want women to go back to leeches, knitting needles, crochet hooks, hot baths and gin, or throwing themselves down the stairs?
This was the reality of illegal abortions.
In 1967 in the UK, Liberal MP David Steel put forward a private member’s bill to make abortion legal. It was passed. There have been repeated attempts to reduce the time limit but essentially, his bill is still pretty much in place. I remember his bill, and I remember the attempts to change it, trying to influence what could happen to my body. Why was it their business? Why?
In 2014, there were 185,000 abortions, for residents of England and Wales. Plus, another 5,000, mostly from NI. (All figures rounded up/down)
Most abortions were carried out under 13 weeks and medically rather than surgically.
Repeat abortions accounted for 37% of the procedures.
The rate was highest for women aged 22.
Girls under 16 accounted for 2,400 abortions.
Yet, of these approx 700 were to girls aged under 15, and similarly, just more than 700 were to women over 45. Different ends of the spectrum, but both in the same boat.
Eighty per cent of abortions were for single women.
Ethnicity is also recorded. Most abortions were for white women, but for repeat abortions, Black/Black British women accounted for nearly half.
Most repeat abortions were for older women.
But let’s move on and look at Europe. From a World Health Organisation Report:
Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, the Russian Federation, Slovakia and Ukraine have the highest estimated abortion rates in the world. In 2003 there were more abortions than live births: 103 abortions per 100 births.
Nevertheless, eastern Europe has seen a dramatic decline in abortion incidence. It was estimated to be 90 per 1000 women of childbearing age in 1995 and 44 by 2004. The decrease coincided with substantial increases in contraceptive use in the region.
Legal restrictions on abortion do not affect its incidence; women seek desperate measures if they cannot obtain safe abortions. Data from Romania revealed that, when termination of pregnancy was banned by the Ceausescu regime, maternal mortality was more than 20 times higher than today.
Unsafe abortion kills. [my bold] Much has been done to improve abortion services in the Region, but up to 30% of maternal deaths are still caused by unsafe abortion in some countries of eastern Europe and central Asia.
The cost of conducting a safe abortion is up to one tenth of the cost of treating the consequences of an unsafe abortion.
And looking worldwide?
Well Eastern Europe comes out poorly as cited above, Northern/Western Europe does well and:
The abortion rate in the United States declined by 8% between 1996 and 2003 to 21 per 1,000 women, but remained higher, and in some cases substantially higher, than the rates in many Northern and Western European countries. However, within the United States, abortion levels differed widely by racial or ethnic group. In 2000, the abortion rate was 12% among white women, 31% among Hispanic women and 57% among black women.
Here’s an interesting conclusion:
Studies have demonstrated that abortion levels are strongly linked to contraceptive use patterns.
Blow me down with a feather. I never would have thought it.
And for blogging posts, here’s one from Violet, and yet another lurid one from
David which suggests that the biggest proponent of birth control (Sanger) in America was pro-abortion. Takes all sorts.