When Vera Drakes were everywhere
Abortion was a part of women’s lives long before it was made legal.
At a time when abortion is much in the headlines, it’s helpful to have Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake on the cinema screens as a reminder of the times before it was legal when, sometimes, women died trying to control their fertility.
It’s also helpful for us to be reminded of how ordinary abortion is, and was, even in the days before it was legal. Reviewers have been surprised by Leigh’s success in presenting a ‘backstreet abortionist’ as an ordinary wife and mother carrying out relatively safe and usually successful procedures. This is not the image of backstreet abortion that we are familiar with.
In her carefully researched book on abortion in England before 1967, Barbara Brookes provides many accounts of the widespread acceptance of abortion as a means of fertility regulation in the decades before it was legal. She discusses the difficulties faced by the family planning pioneer, Marie Stopes, in trying to persuade women in the inter-war years that it was better to prevent unwanted pregnancies than end them by various means employed to ‘bring on a period’. Stopes saw contraception as vital to reduce the number of abortions – she was driven to her wits’ end by women who didn’t see or care about the distinction.
Abortion was a part of women’s lives in the days before it was legal. But it was a silent part talked about only when things went wrong. Peter Diggory, a doctor in the early 1960s and adviser to David Steel during the parliamentary debate on his Abortion Bill, carried out a study of illegal abortion in the Kingston area of London. He claims that although everyone knew someone who had had an abortion, ‘Women who actually had abortions were very silent about their experience and often displayed great loyalty to their abortionist’.
Diggory maintains that there are no accurate statistics to show the magnitude of illegal abortion. His hospital saw 400 women a year with complications and he estimates that ‘four out of every five criminal abortions were probably free of such complications and never came to any hospital’. In 1959 it was estimated by a parliamentary committee, established to investigate abortion, that the treatment of abortion accounted for one in five gynaecological admissions within the NHS. Diggory concluded that there could be as many as 150,000 abortions a year. During the debate on Steel’s Bill in 1966 the Home Office estimated the figure to be 100,000.
Brookes’ evidence confirms the existence of many Vera Drakes. Abortionists usually came to the attention of the authorities when there were serious complications. Many of them were involved in, or associated with, the medical professions: nurses, midwives, dentists and doctors. But others convicted of illegal abortion were ordinary women motivated by their desire to help their neighbours who had developed ‘a knack’ of ending pregnancy. One study of 44 women admitted to Holloway Prison for criminal abortion in the early 1960s showed that most were housewives or retired pensioners aged between 50 and 70 for whom it was not a question of material gain.
Of the backstreet abortionists who were doctors, many following their arrest had fantastic local support. Brookes cites the example of Dr Sumatapalage Gunewardene, a Ceylonese doctor with an East Dulwich practice of 6,000 patients who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for being ‘an accessory before the fact of an abortion which resulted in death’ in 1952. More than 10,000 people signed a petition in support of Dr Gunewardene.
The Labour government, elected in 1964 and re-elected in 1966, had with some success sought to promote a consensus that social conflicts and problems could be resolved through welfare policies. Abortion was framed as such a welfare policy – a means to help women who could not cope with a pregnancy. In part the Act was a response to the existing reality of abortion outside the law – and an attempt to regulate a growing practice and bring it under control. The authorities were alarmed at the growing evidence of the frequency of abortion.
While working-class women resorted to the backstreets, increasingly during the 1960s doctors working in private practice began to interpret the law in a way that allowed them to terminate pregnancies in exchange for a large fee. Women who had money could end their pregnancies with much less risk. Case law established in the 1930s had affirmed that if an abortion was performed because continuing the pregnancy would make the woman a ‘mental and physical wreck’ the doctor was ‘preserving the life of the mother’ and so abortion was legal. By 1967, it had been estimated that almost 10,000 abortions were being performed in NHS hospitals.
The law was perceived to be unclear, inadequate and in need of reform. Abortion Law Reformed by Madeleine Simms and Keith Hindell (1971) describes in great detail the process by which Steel’s Abortion Bill became law – and the different interests engaged in the lobby. Some viewed it as an opportunity to regulate and restrict abortion, perhaps by limiting those who could perform it to consultants, or to NHS premises. Others saw it as an opportunity to clarify the circumstances in which pregnancies might end, or as a means to provide caring doctors with protection from prosecution for humane acts that would give women with unwanted pregnancies a chance to regain control of their lives.
While the abortion law imposes unnecessary restrictions that can act as a barrier to a woman’s right to choose, it has served women reasonably well. Women still face problems obtaining abortion but these are largely caused by problems with the organisation and funding of abortion, rather than by the law itself. The main difficulty women face is that abortion is still stigmatised and not perceived by many policymakers as an essential part of reproductive health services.
Today, in Britain, it’s easy to take abortion services for granted. Women almost never die from abortion here. Vera Drake reminds us that it hasn’t always been this way.
Ann Furedi is chief executive of bpas.
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