International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

A women's right to choose-The struggle for abortion rights

Catriona Grant

Precious Life-the anti-abortion group- have recently threatened to target clinics and medical staff who provide contraception and abortion advice, information and proceedures in Scotland. Once again the issue of abortion rights for women has been thrown into the spotlight. Women, along with socialists and trade unionists, have fought a long struggle for basic fertility rights, which has brought them into conflict with the interests of capitalism. Catriona Grant looks at the struggle within the labour movement for a Women's right to choose. Whilst speaking at a meeting recently on the issue of the socialist politics of abortion, a young comrade asked, "Why do socialists support the right to abortion"? Not such a strange question, as history tells us that the demand was not automatically accepted within the labour movement. The struggle for sexual liberty, contraception and abortion was indeed that - a struggle. You only have to look at the succession of Labour MP's in the past, who trooped into the lobbies of the House of Commons to vote for legislation that undermined a women's right to choose. The birth control movement at the turn of the century came mostly from a reactionary Malthusian background, who argued that the poor were poor because of the size of their families.

Some Marxists were suspicious of birth control as a palliative which would divert workers from revolution. Reformist Labour leaders traditionally acted to defend the family-in other words the traditional role of women to produce children and care for them- and hoped to exclude sexual questions from politics.

The arguments in favour of birth control were taken up by both Eugenic societies and by socialist feminists but from different standpoints. One of the great socialist feminists of the time was Stella Browne. She openly argued and agitated for sexual freedom for women and men, but also for contraception and particularly abortion rights before the first world war. Browne was an activist in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and later on in the Labour Party.

She challenged the idea that unmarried female comrades should "always practice abstinence", and that women should have right to live as they wanted with freedom from oppression and the bind of their bodies.

Within the Communist Party at that time a male comrade exclaimed that " on the subject of sex equality, the majority of my women comrades are as unsound as their capitalist-minded sisters. It is time that some of our sex-obsessed comrades realised that woman's so-called slavery to man is solely owing to her economic dependence on him and can only end when the capitalist regime ends".

The work of members of the CPGB who supported birth control really was an uphill struggle. Browne advocated both birth control and abortion on demand, and held many public meetings about the work of Alexandra Kollantai in the Soviet Union, and the agitation in Germany and Austria led by left-wing feminists and by socialists for birth control. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, contraception, abortion and divorce were made available on demand. The CPGB refused to have a position on birth contol and abortion until the mid-1920's, by then the CPGB understood that women in order to fully participate in the struggle had to be free from constant pregnancy and began to agitate for birth control. Mass meetings were held on birth control where women packed the meetings, desperate to find out about accessible birth control that did not make them ill.

The Worker's Birth Control Group was formed in 1934, they argued for safe contraception but also for safe, legal and free abortion. They campaigned not only for the right to abortion but for amnesties for women who were imprisoned for performing abortions.

In 1925 at the Labour Party conference session on birth control, the labour women's resolution on birth control was defeated with 1, 850 000 votes against and 1, 530 000 for. The battle continued. Women were being criminalised and were dying from abortions. The issue would not go away. Statistics about illegal abortion from this time are difficult to obtain as most abortions were recorded as miscarriage. We do however know of the practices used by women. Not all abortions were performed by sinister abortionists up dark streets with dirty knitting needles. Most abortion was brought on by using drugs obtained from herbalists, chemists or stalls in market places.

Women heard of them by word of mouth or through booklets. One booklet used in the 1930's was - The Shadow of the Stork. Women passed about enema syringes round their communities and work places. From generation to generation women passed down methods to "bring on menstruation". It was important for campaigners to highlight the tragedies of abortion, however for every abortion that failed, resulting in death or serious illness there were many that were undoubtfully successful.

Abortions under these conditions were still risky and dangerous. Women took large doses of Beechams Powders, castor oil, washing powder in gin, scalding baths which acted not only to bring about abortion, but it also made themselves very ill.

The abortifacients did not have a specific effect on the uterus but were general poisons with a side effect, which brought on miscarriage. Such poisoning caused vomiting and convulsions which impacted on their already poor health of working class women.

Along with taking poisons, women inserted knitting needles, hair pins, crotchet hooks, skewers used to fix bobbins in mills into their uteruses, can you imagine the effect such implements had on women and their bodies, using no antibiotics or anaesthetics? Between 1926 and 1935 around 500 women died every year from abortion. Despite the known dangers women had no choice. Birth control clinics were formed throughout Britain, some were based on the Eugenics movement paid for by charity donations by rich women. Feminists and socialists became involved. In Glasgow a clinic was formed by Labour and Co-operative women, who received money from the trade unions. Socialists agitated amongst working class women during the 1926 General Strike information about contraception was giving out on a mass scale. The Catholic Church attacked the leafleters stating that they were "the kind of women who visit matinees and sit with cigarettes between their painted lips". There were claims that socialists were using working class women in experiments. Those campaigning for birth control were charged under obscenity laws, pamphlets were seized and destroyed. A pamphlet called Family Limitation was described as a "dirty book" as it argued that women should have pleasure in sexual intercourse. A diagram that showed how to insert a diaphragm, which used a finger, inserted in a woman's vagina caused uproar as it was supposed that the finger might not be the woman's own. Contraception was slowly being accepted and talked about, however the right to abortion was still a taboo subject.

Stella Browne continued to campaign for the right to abortion on demand. She openly admitted that during her 30's she had to have an illegal abortion. She argued that birth control and abortion were part of a wider transformation in the material circumstances and social relationships between men and women. The ending of capitalism alone could not liberate women.

Every now and then throughout the 1930's headlines would appear about a tragic death brought on by a back street or self-abortion. It was openly acknowledged that women of substance could pay for a safe abortion. Wealthy women could afford "therapeutic abortions", poor women could only receive criminal abortions. The only difference being a woman's ability to pay.

In 1938 there was a landmark trial about therapeutic abortions, when a leading gynaecologist was acquitted for performing an abortion on a 14 year old girl. The girl had been a victim of a multiple rape, the rapists were officers of the Royal Horse Guards. The young girl had been attacked so furiously that she had to be hospitalised, she suffered serious physical injuries and was traumatised by the rape. It soon became obvious that the rape had brought about pregnancy. A doctor at the hospital refused to perform a therapeutic abortion as "as she was raped by officers, she might be carrying a future prime minister of England".

Dr Aleck Bourne agreed to help the young girl, he observed his patient carefully for a week and when he was satisfied that only an abortion would save her from a total nervous breakdown he performed the abortion stating that he acted in "good faith" for the patient's welfare. Dr Bourne walked free and set a precedent. From 1938 until 1967 it was up to the prosecution to prove that a doctor had not acted in the "good faith of the patients' welfare". Unfortunately this only covered medical practitioners and not the network of abortionists around Britain who were not medical practitioners.

After the Second World War up until the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion was the main cause of maternal death in Britain. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 100,000 abortions were performed every year. In the early 60's there were 44 women who were jailed for performing illegal abortions in Holloway Prison alone. One such abortionist stated " I knew it was against the law, but I didn't feel it was wrong. Women have to help each other."

Throughout the 1960's, pressure from the new women's movement was pressurising government. Humanitarians, reformists and socialists were backing the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill introduced by Liberal MP David Steel (now Sir Steel, Speaker of the Scottish Parliament) in 1966. Steel's concern was that with between 20,000 and 100,000 illegal abortions being performed every year the law, which discriminated against abortion in the NHS, yet gave abortion on demand in the private sector.

However the Bill was not the right for women to have abortion on demand. Women needed 2 medical practitioners to be of "good faith" that a termination is in the interest of the welfare of the woman. The Bill despite its faults was a massive step forward for women. After much debate, the 1967 abortion act was passed and is the act that allows safe and legal abortion to exist today, unfortunately is was not fully extended to Northern Ireland. In 1971 there were 95,000 legal abortions performed on British citizens, 57 per cent on the NHS. The act itself did not legislate that the NHS must perform abortions and did not grant extra money for the service. Private clinics sprung up all over England and Wales, some run for profit, some by charitable organisations like the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. In areas such as Birmingham abortion still to this day is difficult to obtain on the NHS, a leading gynaecologist from Birmingham on the day the 1967 Abortion Act became legal stated on television "Whatever the law says we will not murder little children in Birmingham".

In the 21st Century only 25% of abortions obtained in the Midlands area are accessed through the NHS. Contraceptive clinics did not become part of the NHS until 1974, only after campaigns about the "soaring" abortion rates did the NHS take on the issue of contraception and contraceptive advice. Throughout the 70's feminists and socialists campaigned for abortion on demand and the right to free contraception. In 1979 the Corrie Bill came about to attack the abortion act which acted to re-organise women in defence of the act.

Throughout the 1980's, as the Tories attacked the NHS, they undermined access to sex education and contraceptive advice. Allowing GPs the ability to prescribe contraception fuelled the argument the Family Planning Centres were an added expense on an already tight NHS budgets. Local authorities were attacked for having "loony left" agendas for discussing sex, sexuality and contraception in schools. Posters and leaflets in youth clubs, community centres and libraries were removed by indignant moralists.

In 1988 Roman Catholic Liberal MP David Alton again tried to undermine the 1967 Act. His amendment tried to change the time after which a women would be unable to have an abortion to18 weeks in to the pregnancy. Again women acted to defend the right for women to choose safe and legal abortion. The abortion act still needs to defended and extended to allow free abortion available on the NHS on demand. Currently a huge number of abortions are carried out in private clinics, not least due to the crumbling state of the NHS. Today contraception is free and is accessed from either the GP or a Family Planning Clinic, in the case of condoms they can be bought in most Chemists and even in garages. Access to contraception is a wider discussion. It is estimated that 8 out of 10 abortions could be avoided altogether but there are many reasons why women and girls do not use contraception effectively; lack of access, lack of confidence and the hope that pregnancy won't happen to them, pressure from their sexual partner not to use condoms, the list could be endless. In a survey in 1993, 93% of women undergoing abortion in Leeds said that they would have used emergency contraception (morning after pill), if they had known about it and knew how to access it. The issue of contraception today is more complicated as the issue of safer sex is now a factor and it is as important for both men and women in order to protect against sexual infection, HIV and Hepatitis C etc. The battle now is not only to educate both men and women about contraception but also aboutusing condoms and safer sex practices to protect themselves.

The high profile activities of organisation like Precious Life and the Pro-Life Alliance as well as the pronouncements of religious leaders like Cardinal Winning show that the issue of abortion, which is the right of a woman to have control over her own body, is an issue that the working class and socialists have to be forever vigilant on. The struggle for the right for women to choose whether to continue with a pregnancy or to access a safe, legal, free abortion on demand still continues.

The building of a new socialist society, which would put an end to the economic, social and sexual exploitation of women, would finally finish the fight began by the pioneers of those who fought for contraception, abortion and fertility rights for women.

Books recommended for further reading Abortion. Between Freedom and Necessity. Janet Hadley, Virago Press.
A New World for Women: Stella Browne- Socialist Feminist. Sheila Rowbotham
Abortion in Demand Victoria Greenwood & Jock Young.