50 years since the Abortion Act - Still no choice for working class women

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On 27 October 2017 it will be 50 years since the Abortion Act became law. The many events and press coverage marking the anniversary generally agree that while the Act was a hugely important step forward for women in Britain, it is not fit for purpose. However, legislation is far from the only reason getting an abortion is still a problem for women. Conditions for the working class – the devastating attacks on services, living standards and benefits which hit women hardest, the increasing isolation and responsibility for childrearing with little support – is missing from these discussions. We must be clear that these cannot be separated, and that abortion is not a question of choice for the working class.

History of the Act

Currently, one in three women in Britain has had an abortion. Yet it remains illegal with a punishment of life imprisonment, except in specific circumstances and with the signed permission of two doctors. Women and health care professionals are forced to find ways around restrictive legislation.

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act introduced a life sentence for a woman seeking abortion, and shorter sentences for doctors providing it. Women turned to knitting needles, or ‘menstrual blockage’ pills advertised by newspapers. They faced haemorrhage, septicaemia, and damage to the womb. The poisonous pills left some women blind. The threat of imprisonment meant women faced life-threatening complications alone.

The 1930s saw campaigns for legal abortion because of the death rate. In 1938 one doctor set a precedent by publicly discussing an abortion he performed on a 14-year-old who had been raped. Following this some abortions were allowed, with the approval of a psychiatrist, but access remained essentially restricted to wealthy women. Following years of limited campaigns, including by the Abortion Law Reform Association (ARLA), the 1960s saw a rise in the availability and range of other contraception and the issue of abortion came to the fore; in 1967 MP David Steele, with pressure from ARLA, raised the question in parliament. Once passed, the Act had a significant impact, but it did not challenge the criminal law. It was a far cry from free, safe abortion on demand for all women.

The Act has since been threatened by anti-abortion groups and MPs and much campaigning activity has been defensive. The 1990 Human Fertility and Embryology Act introduced the 24-week limit on abortion, unless for specific circumstances such as severe foetal abnormality.

There are current calls to decriminalise abortion by organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and the Royal College of Midwives. However a recent Bill seeking to repeal the criminal offences associated with abortion had a first reading in the House of Commons in March and subsequently fell due to the early general election.

Working class women cannot rely on parliament to advance their interests and will try to meet their needs themselves. A study published in September 2017 shows more women in Britain are turning to abortion medication bought online because of the barriers they face accessing clinics. In just four months up to March 2017, 519 women approached Women on Web, who provide abortion pills to countries where safe abortion is restricted, for advice. Of the reasons women gave for turning to online pills, 49% were due to problems accessing services, including work and childcare commitments, long waiting times, having to travel miles to clinics and an ineligibility for free care. 18% cite partner or family control. Clare Murphy of BPAS said: ‘The numbers of women in Britain seeking abortion pills online documented in this study are quite staggering […it] underlines the need for a thorough overhaul of our abortion laws so that no woman faces clinically unnecessary obstacles in accessing care. It also concerns us deeply that women using pills bought online are at risk of life in prison if caught.’

Legislative change must be accompanied by a free, accessible system of reproductive care that meets the needs of working class women. This means opposition to the cuts, closures, sell-offs and limitations of current provision.

Abortion: an issue for the working class

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has consistently reported on the current economic crisis and attacks on working class living conditions. Childcare costs and cuts to provision for children are destroying necessary services for families. Attacks on housing and associated benefits include the restriction of child benefit to two children.

This year, women’s employment reached over 70% for the first time since comparable records began in 1971. More women are working full-time, and those working part-time are working more. Beneath the headline figures lie poverty pay and long hours in worsening conditions. Most children who live in poverty are in a household with a parent at work.

The erosion of working conditions and services is a double blow to women, working when capitalism needs their labour in the lowest-paid jobs and performing unpaid and unsupported care in the home. The fight for social equality must therefore address the social situation women face. It must address the current high cost of bearing children. It must recognise that black and minority ethnic women and women in households where both partners are unemployed are still six times more likely to die in childbirth than white women and those from employed households.

The law and reproductive health services do not meet the needs of working class women and it is necessary to fight for full, free, universal care on demand. In recognising it as part of the struggle for the social equality of women, we must recognise the responsibility society must bear for its children.          

Rachel Francis


Racist passport checks and charges

As of 23 October, organisations receiving NHS funding for abortion services must check patients’ passports or ID and upfront charging is being advised for those ‘not ordinarily resident’ in the UK. As Lucy Jones from Doctors of the World explains, ‘Restricting access will simply increase illegal and unsafe abortions and all the horrible complications that arise from them.’ Other family planning services remain free, but the threat of ID checks will deter people from accessing services, as is already happening with maternity services.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 260 October/November 2017