Dave Widgery

Abortion: The Pioneers

(July/August 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.80, July/August 1975, pp.6-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

UNTIL the 1967 Abortion Act, termination of established pregnancy was either furtive and expensive if you had money or illegal and hazardous if you did not. Since the Act’s passage and despite the extensive and favourable Lane Report, inquiring into its working, the organised pressure of the Catholic Church and the votes of the Labour Right have succeeded in achieving the Second Reading of an Abortion (Amendment) Bill which, if passed, would reverse the important although insufficient gains of the 1967 Act. What is seldom realised is that the long campaign to legalise abortion was inspired by the sexual policy of Bolshevik Russia and initiated 50 years ago by women committed to the Labour Movement and the liberation of working class women. Abortion reform was not, as it became in the 50s and 60s a liberal, single-issue, mainly middle-class affair dependent on the goodwill of Private Members. It began as a revolutionary demand fought along class lines and striving for the absolute right of women to take their own decisions over their bodies. The first person to advocate legalisation on a public platform, F.W. Stella Browne did so, in her own words, ‘as a Feminist and a Communist’ insisting ‘Abortion must be the key to a new world for women, not a bulwark for things as they are, economically nor biologically’. She stated defiantly ‘Our bodies are our own’. In a year in which the socialist and the feminist movement once again has had to take up the campaign for free, legal and safe abortion it is worth looking again at socialist attitudes to abortion and the remarkably fresh-sounding ideas of the women pioneers.

LEGAL or not, abortion has existed as long as pregnancy itself. Spontaneous abortion is the natural mechanism of rejecting imperfect embryos. The medical literature of pre-industrial societies is rich in references to methods of interfering with established pregnancies either by brewing solutions of various herbs and chemicals or direct attack on the cervix. Sharpened marrow root, advocated in tenth century Persia, carved walrus rib used by Eskimo tribes or the modern weaponry of knitting needle, hat pin and umbrella rib have all been used as well as direct trauma by jumping, strenuous climbing and direct blows to the abdomen with large stones. [1] Most of the modern chemicals used to bring on abortion like lead, salvin, aloes, penny-royal, quinine and tansy have no specific effect on the uterus but are general poisons causing convulsions or vomiting which produces abortion as a side effect The extent of their use is obviously hard to gauge, it was illegal and therefore underground and informal, mainly undertaken by the pregnant woman herself with the aid of a local woman helper. Women who knew the trick of ‘bringing it off were more likely to be treasured and protected local figures rather than the grubby profiteer conjured up by the phrase ‘back street abortion’. Their methods may have been barbaric but their intentions were probably fairly good. Many women have gone to their graves without letting out the name of their helper to the bed-side detective. Abortion certainly seems to become a cause for concern when women were asserting themselves in other ways. The first stirrings of Victorian middle class women into higher education and the professions were accompanied by laments about the falling birth rate. There was talk of ‘married women whenever they find themselves pregnant, habitually beginning to take exercise, on foot or horseback, to an extent unusual at other times, and thus making themselves abort’ [2] and the ‘many mothers of the lower middle class in London who avail themselves of French precedents to avoid the cares and expenses of maternity’. [3]

Nor was abortion as a method of birth control confined to the leisured classes. Frank Roberts recalls that in Salford in the early part of this century:

‘Tucked away in the corners of the local newspaper one saw other medical announcements. These offered assurances to “Ladies”, “Women” and “Females” of their ability to remove all “obstructions” of all kinds, “no matter how obstinate or longstanding”. The advertisers usually had foreign names and obscure London addresses. But most of our women in need of such treatment relied on prayer, massive doses of penny-royal syrup, and the right application of hot, very soapy water. There were even some who in desperation took abortifacients sold by the vets for use with domestic animals.’ [4]

A reference to ‘Portuguese’ in a medicine’s title was the code for abortifacients.

The desperate risks women were prepared to take with their own bodies indicates not their foolishness but quite how passionate was their desire for families of a manageable size. Abortion was a form of rebellion against the fate of repeated pregnancies enforced by the man’s right to inflict intercourse and the wife’s inability to prevent pregnancy. From the prospective mother’s point of view abortion was actually more reliable than most of the early methods of contraception which relied on the will, and skill, of the male partner. If it seems cruel one should remember that infanticide, the deliberate murder of the new born, usually the girls, was the most common form of birth control in the classical world and was recommended by such philosophical worthies as Plato and Aristotle. Working class women until well into this century were faced with the choice of unofficial and frequently harmful amateur methods of contraception and abortion or a remorselessly increasing family which was hard to feed and clothe and which had little prospect of work.

A harrowing collection of accounts of the family life of working class mothers was published in 1915 by the Womens Cooperative Guild which had then about 32,000 members in 611 branches. The word abortion was still taboo, it was, after all, punishable with life imprisonment. But as the introduction put it:

‘There are many facts which go to prove that the habit of taking such drugs has spread to an alarming extent in many places among working women. The practice is ruinous to the health of women, is often more than useless in producing the object desired and probably accounts for the fact that many children are weakly and diseased from birth. But here again the cause of the evil lies in the conditions which produce it Where maternity is only followed by an addition to the daily life of suffering, want, overwork and poverty, people will continue to adopt even the most dangerous, uncertain and disastrous methods of avoiding it.’ [5]

One mother who became pregnant full of ignorance and illusions found ‘Motherhood ceased to be a crown of glory and became a fearsome thing to be shunned and feared’. She caught an extensive skin disease from the charlatan who delivered her second child and was terrified of a third. ‘I confess with shame that when well-meaning friends said:’ “You cannot afford this baby; take this drug”, I took their strong concoctions to purge me of the little life that might be mine.’

Another letter-writer tells of her friends:

‘... who have felt they would not carry children, some because of bad husbands, others because they felt they could not properly feed and clothe those they had. There are three who lost their lives and another who already had seven. These all took some kind of drug, and of course it did the work they wanted it to do. The doctor felt sorry for this woman and could not blame her. She has had difficulty in rearing these seven. When she ; was able to get out, I saw her and talked seriously to her, but she said “Mrs, I will not have any more by him and I would not have cared if I had died”.’

The attitude of the classical Marxists towards abortion is hostile. August Bebel the German Marxist parliamentarian in his biblical Women Under Socialism first published in 1883 and reaching 50 editions by his death in 1913 deals with abortion solely as evidence of women’s subordination in capitalism. He notes an apparent rise in the number of abortions in the 1880s and comments with disapproval on the imagined availability of abortion in the USA and the cities of France and Germany which he thought had reached the point ‘of public calamity’. [6]

Although he concedes that abortion may sometimes be sought by ‘conscientious women’ out of want or mental worry, he regards more probable motives to be selfish; to conceal adultery, out of fear of losing their charms or ‘to be able to indulge their excesses without interruption’. He emphasises the perils of adultery.

‘Abortion is, in many cases, accompanied by the most serious results. The operation is dangerous; death not infrequently occurs; often the result is permanent impairment of health’.

But in this suspicion of abortion Bebel was only echoing a general socialist dislike of any scheme to solve social problems by limiting population. This hostility which has bedevilled the socialist approach to fertility control stems from the bitter attacks Marx made on the 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, an amateur economist who had argued that since food production increased at a slower rate than population grew, overpopulation would inevitably overtake and swamp the world’s resources. [7]

This fear of overpopulation crops up periodically at times of slump in the capitalist system from Tudor England right up to Enoch Powell and Sir Keith Joseph. In Malthus’s case it was essentially a political response to the French Revolution and the popularity of radicals like Tom Paine. It drove Marx to near fury about ‘this libel on the human race’. He insisted, rightly of course, that capitalism is really more interested in restraining its workforce than feeding it. Enormous tracts of land remained completely uncultivated in England (as they still do) and what is grown is often farmed very inefficiently. Anyway rising population in capitalist society presses against the means of employment rather than some finite amount of food.

The system is unable to provide jobs which is why it cannot feed people, not the other way round. Every child is born with a pair of hands, the problem, then and now, is whether the social system can make rational use of them. Otherwise, as Engels wisecracked: ‘The earth was already overpopulated when only one man existed.’

Marx’s arguments are still extremely relevant against liberal groups like Population Growth Zero and the straightforwardly imperialist programmes of compulsory birth control and sterilisation operated by the American government against its colonies and its domestic minorities. And they were highly relevant against the leadership of the Malthusian League the main group campaigning to bring contraceptive information to working class people between 1870 and 1920 who quite explicitly saw birth control as a means of controlling the increasingly unruly masses. [8] Among right-wing socialist intellectuals at the turn of the century, patriotism, social imperialism and eugenic breeding methods were to be the methods by which a civilised socialism was to bypass the nastiness of the class struggle. [9]

The tone of the right-wing argument is well conveyed in a review of one of the most prominent Malthusians’ pamphlet Labour Troubles and Birth Control in the Glasgow Herald at the height of the Red Clydeside,

‘Birth control continues to spread, of course, among all the white peoples. When they realise it is mainly excessive birthrates, and not capitalism, which causes poverty, they will also cease the class war and unite... to defend themselves against the menace of the coloured peoples.’ [10]

It’s hardly surprising that when Malthusian League speakers took to the streets in South London they were interrupted by ‘socialistic heckling’ or that the founder members of the Communist Party were very cagey about both contraception and abortion. But it was a classic case of Marxists parroting die orthodoxy and missing the changed political context. Of course we need to argue against those who would solve social problems by cutting population rather than transforming society. But the socialist men who simply repeated Marx’s anti-Malthusianism were unable to see the other side of the coin, women’s absolute and essential right to decide for themselves when they wanted children and with whom once the medical means to do so were available. Otherwise there was very little hope of the women concerned ever being able to transform anything.

It was the Russian Revolution which altered the whole terms of the debate and finally disposed of the anti-Malthusian red herrings. Russian women, especially die peasant women of oriental Russia who were still living behind the veil, were ignored in public and browbeaten at home. In socialist circles birth control techniques were probably known and these may have been passed on to women workers in the cities. But for the majority of Russian women, pregnancy was an all too familiar nightmare either interrupted with a button hook or proceeding to an unaided delivery and a high chance of early death for the weaker infants.

Yet in a matter of months, centuries of legal and political oppression were stripped off in curt, practical decrees of soviet power:

‘Marriage is dissolved at die request of both spouses or either of them’, ‘Children born out of wedlock are equalised in rights with children born in wedlock’, ‘Abortion may be performed free and unimpededly in the soviet hospitals where the maximum of safety is secured’. [11]

A Department for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy was directly organised by Alexandra Kollantai to provide maternity benefit and fixed maternity leave, and arrange for the transfer of pregnant female industrial workers to light, day time work. The change was complete.

‘Instead of mere reform, it completely revolutionised the laws. The revolution let nothing remain of the old despotic and infinitely unscientific laws; it did not tread the path of reformist bourgeois legislation which, with juristic subtlety, still hangs onto the concept of property in the sexual sphere, and ultimately demands that the double standard holds sway over sexual life.’ [12]

Trotsky put it crisply when he was quizzed by Liberty magazine in 1933 who asked if Bolshevism was deliberately destroying the family, all moral standards in sex and encouraging bigamy and polygamy;

‘If one understands by the family a compulsory union based on the marriage contract, the blessing of the church, property rights, and the single passport, then Bolshevism has destroyed this policed family from the roots up.’ [13]

Establishing the right to interrupt pregnancy in public obstetric hospitals aimed to undermine the illegal and incompetent, abortions which were taking place on a gigantic scale in rural Russia. Bolshevik common sense argued that punishment ‘does not produce any good results. It only compels people to do this in secret; it makes women a prey to grasping and often ignorant abortionists’. [14] Instead, slowly and surely, special educational trains and mobile medical squads took sex education and birth control and abortion methods to the remote districts. A film was made about die story of Sonya who dies of an illegal abortion. Semaschko, die Commissar of Health, made a personal appearance expounding the virtues of hygenic hospital abortion. Abortion was always seen as a practical necessity rather than a long term solution, as Reich puts it:

‘the Soviets were clear in their own minds from the very beginning that the legalisation of abortion was only one of the means of. fighting quackery. The main goal was that of prevention of abortion through enlightenment about the use of contraceptives.’ [15]

Abortion was only a part of a many sided approach to maternity and a fundamental change in women’s position, directed by women themselves. In fact the birth rate actually increased slightly contrary to the warnings of the capitalist moralists. But at the same time abortion was seen as a basic political right, not an administrative convenience.

At a doctors’ conference in 1932 Dr Zelinsky replied vigorously to a colleague worried about abortion on demand:

‘One of the speakers here exclaimed in horror: “All that is needed is the certificate of the doctor and the desire of the woman, and there you have an abortion.” Yes, that is exactly the way it should be; the desire of the women is sufficient, because the right to determine the social indications for abortion is the woman’s and nobody else’s. None among us men would tolerate it if some commission or other had the say about our marriage, if they, according to their social concepts, could consent to our getting married or veto it. So, don’t keep the woman from deciding the cardinal question of life for herself. The woman has a right to a sexual life and wants to realise it just as a man does, and if she wants to be a full social and biological being, she must have die fullest possibilities of realising it’. [16]

It takes a real effort of imagination to wrench one’s mind back to the sexual atmosphere in Britain, that most hypocritical of nations, in the same period. Some of the more ludicrous Victorian sexual taboos had collapsed under their own dead weight. Sexual concessions were made as long as they helped the war effort; condoms became available, so that soldiers could release their frustrations with French prostitutes without catching VD and getting invalided away from the front, couples could walk out together without causing offence, the slogan was ‘There’s a girl for every soldier’, even bras were pictured in the popular press as long as money could be made out of them. But as regards the realities which lurked behind the happy, patriotic British family, prostitution, venereal disease, illicit abortion, the brutal suppression of homosexuals, the policy was ‘hush’. Sex was something men did and women endured.

‘The cost of English morals’ wrote Janet Chance, herself a pioneer of abortion law reform was ‘enforced motherhood, and its worse alternative, self-inflicted abortion, the shoddy preparation for marriage given the young, the social maiming of unusual sexual types, the preservation of dead marriages’. [17] In 1926 a medical expert pronounced that the use of contraceptives amounted to ‘masturbation a deux’ – intercourse without issue was immoral. [18] The Church still opposed birth control as a matter of principle. ‘Birth control is prohibited because it is wrong with a fundamental wrongness, antecedent to any ecclesiastical law or tradition’ wrote Cardinal Bourne in the Encylopaedia Britannica in 1929. Dr Lyttleton explained why in The Christian and Birth Control:

‘Life is surrendered first to the will of God, who calls us to be trained for discipline for another world, not primarily in this. Officially therefore, and openly, the Church must forbid the practice’. [19]

If birth control was damned, abortion was unmentionable. The British Medical Association preferred to call it ‘the illegal operation’. Even as the eagle of ruling class morality peered blindly from its self satisfied perch, its talons were inflicting enormous cruelty, violence the creature didn’t deign to notice.

At the very moment the Church rambled on about the sanctity of the soul, 400,000 women a year were having illegal abortions and 400 a year were dying of the operation which was the second biggest cause of death for women between 22 and 35 years old. As Janet Chance put it ‘the conventional moralist has so skilfully soaked the word abortion in the dyes of his taboo that it is impossible for the average person to see the subject in its own colours’. [20]

The remarkable group of women who first burst through this wall of sexual hypocrisy were feminists who were dissatisfied with the Suffragettes’ fixation on the Vote as the solution to women’s problems and wanted instead to raise the issues of birth control, family allowances, maternity provision and nursery education in the Labour Movement. Stella Browne, Frida Laski, Dora Russell and Janet Chance were all political individuals but they shared a commitment to working class women’s economic, educational and erotic independence. They pop up in the Communist, Labour Party and the Malthusian League as a continual radical thorn, cheered by rank and file women as their leaders shuddered. As a ginger group called The Workers’ Birth Control Group they succeeded in 1926, after a four year campaign, to commit the Labour Party against MacDonald and the platform to providing birth control advice at local authority clinics. [21] In 1936 it was they who founded the Abortion Law Reform Association. Stella Browne was a Canadian Librarian active in the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, a London grouping of sexual radicals founded in 1914 to investigate a ‘double sided problem, on one side sex-psychology, on the other social problems’ and linked to the World Congress for Sexual Reform. (The World League enthusiastically supported by the Bolsheviks and with Kollantai as a sponsor, held four international congresses eventually dividing into a radical and revolutionary socialist wing in 1936.)

The Society included Havelock Ellis, Lawrence Houseman, Eden Paul, Norman Haire and it was in a lecture in 1915 on Sexual Variety and Variability among Women that Stella Browne first made a public call that ‘the ineffably foolish laws penalising abortion mutt be abolished; they are the foulest remnants of the Canon Law’. [22] She was a founder member of the Communist Party, writing for The Communist’s woman’s page (‘which men can read with advantage’), but left the Party in me mid Twenties, probably over the Party’s refusal, as it refuses today, to fight for abortion on demand, to become a full-time lecturer to trade union branches and trade union wives’ committees on sexual questions for the Malthusian League. Her regular column in The New Generation in the Twenties gives a running commentary on the battles in the Labour Parry Women’s Conference and the Party Conference in birth control, accounts of her tours to South Wales and Yorkshire and international news, especially of Kollantai’s work in Soviet Russia.

Her emphasis in birth control and abortion was always on its importance for women’s consciousness, not the state’s convenience. Speaking at the Fifth International Neo-Malthusian Conference in 1922 where she petrified the platform by her mention of ‘the moral right to abortion’ she commences briskly:

‘In my opinion, as a Feminist and a Communist, the fundamental importance and value of birth control lies in its widening of the scope of human freedom and choice, its self-determining significance for women. Birth control means freedom for women, social and sexual freedom, and that is why it is so feared and disliked in many influential corners today ... [it] is the beginning of the end of a social system and a moral code.’

Stella Browne in fact saw birth control and abortion as important rights for exactly the opposite reasons to those of the Eugenicists, they wanted contraception among the poor so that me state could breed a more intelligent and less rebellious race, she wanted it to free women from compulsory pregnancy and enforced monogamy to enable them to have ‘the children they desired with the men they desired’ as part of fundamental social and economic change.

The pioneers always stressed that discreet semi-official abortions available privately for the middle-class mother had never existed for the working class. As Stella Browne told the Birkett Interdepartment Committee on Abortion:

‘It is not difficult for any woman of moderate means to find a medical man willing to relieve her of an unwanted pregnancy, regardless of her state of health. Such facilities are not available for poorer women, who are accordingly driven to take the risk of less skilful treatment at the hands of non-medical abortionists’.

Dr Leunback a Danish obstetrician active in the World League for Sexual Reform makes the same point about the availability of termination according to income.

‘Medical work in these days bean every mark of being carried on as a private capitalistic operation... When doctors maintain that they will have nothing to do with termination of pregnancy on social grounds this must be taken to mean poverty is not regarded as an adequate indication while wealth on the other hand is.’ [23]

Working class women were vocal at the founding conference of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936. Mrs W. Williams of Leeds spoke up as ‘a representative of the industrial north, where it is customary for mothers to go out to the factory to work’ about the extent of illegal abortion. Nurse Daniels, who had been dismissed, despite local working class protest, as a Health Visitor in Edmonton for giving birth control advice in 1922 was more indignant:

‘Poor women live under the spell of fear and they are always trying to get themselves right. Working women want abortion. Why should not me poor have it? Let me poor have what the rich have already got.’ [24]

The letters which the Association received from working class women suggest that things had got no better since the publication of Maternity 30 years earlier. One woman writes:

‘I hope the day will come when a woman can demand to have this operation and not have to prove she is half dead or mental or anything else, just the plain truth that she doesn’t want another baby because she can’t afford to feed and clothe one.’ [25]

Another woman of 49 who accidentally became pregnant pleads:

‘the knowledge is nearly driving me mental and I feel like committing suicide, we can’t afford to go on with another child at our time of life and I feel too tired to go through with it, please take pity on me and see if anything can’t be done for me, I feel like a rat that’s caught in a trap and there’s no escape.’

The vicious circle of poverty, pride and isolation rings out of the letters,

‘I would have gone to a Birth Control Clinic long ago but I was too ashamed of my clothes’

‘When people find out you have not married and have a baby, they walk away’

‘For £80 a man in a cheap rubber shop promised me an illegal operation, I can’t raise 80/-. I can’t sleep at night, I must keep my windows shut – I get a terrible urge to jump from them. I fight against thoughts of self-destruction.’

But the argument was never left on the level of an economic injustice. The campaigners’ political case for abortion on demand, like ours today, was a direct challenge to the medical profession, the Church and the state’s control over a decision which should rest with the pregnant woman herself. ‘Nobody feels the economic side of the question more than I do, but, as in the matter of birth control, it is necessary to stress the right of every woman to have the power to decide what should happen to her own body. That is why it is vital to attack this law’ said Dora Russell at the founding conference in 1936. ‘I protest’ wrote Stella Browne, ‘against the medical monopoly under the pretext of “safeguards”, hygenic or moral. The knowledge is the right of every adult human being, male or female, married or single and for any assembly of well-to-do educated, leisured “men of the world” to boggle over this point is simply cant’. [26] The ALRA pioneers wanted abortion for any woman who decided so, regardless of her marital status, without inquisitions and red tape which could carry on so long that the unwanted child was virtually born and breeched before the termination could be authorised.

One last and refreshing characteristic of the Association’s founders was their appreciation of the changes in sexuality itself once birth control and abortion separated erotic pleasure from reproduction (or the ‘amative’ function of lovemaking from the ‘propagative’ as the older sex reformers discreetly put it). Liberals tried to placate the moralists and reassure them that abortion law reform would have no impact on women’s erotic life. But as Reich points out, legalised abortion on social grounds does force:

‘Official sanctioning of the sexual act apart from reproduction which would mean throwing overboard accepted secular and ecclesiastical concepts of sexuality’. [27]

Stella Browne wasn’t at all ashamed to argue frankly for sexual pleasure:

‘What is this ban on abortion? It is a sexual taboo, it is the terror that women should experiment and enjoy freely, without punishment. Will you help so that this terror shall be lifted from women, from love and from sex which should be beautiful and inspiring but cannot be when two people have this ghastly shadow of undesired conception at the back of their minds the whole time.’ [28]

She insists on an affirmative attitude to love-making which has been sadly lacking in the socialist movement, saturated, as it sometimes is, with the ideology of sacrifice rather than the joy of release.

‘If sexual experience. . . has been fused and illuminated by the overwhelming vision and emotion of love, sex will be inestimably precious and significant, whether or not the fruit of life shall result.’ [29]

It is not possible to record that despite the clarity of their case, the pioneers of abortion law made a lot of immediate legal progress. The campaign on contraception had begun to swim with the tide by the Thirties and eventually the Ministry of Health was forced to issue the famous Memorandum 153 authorising maternity and child welfare clinics to give birth control advice to married women on medical grounds. [30] The state proved versatile enough to embrace the methods it had outlawed for centuries. But abortion was too extreme a cause to attract the rich and liberal. Prosecutions under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act continued and this barbaric law was actually strengthened in 1929 by Lord Hailsham’s Infant Life Preservation Act. The British Medical Association brought out a relatively liberal report on abortion in 1936, despite the protests of many of its members.

The Workers’ Birth Control Group scored an important victory when the Woman’s Coop Guild voted in. 1936 for reform. The motion, moved by the Blackhorse Branch and seconded by Elmer’s End stated:

‘In view of the persistently high maternal death rate and the evils arising from the illegal practice of abortion, this Congress calls upon the government to revise the abortion laws of 1861 by bringing them into harmony with modern conditions and ideas, thereby making abortion a legal operation that can be carried out under the same conditions as any other surgical operation.’

And in 1938 Alec Bourne, a liberal obstetrician at St Mary’s Hospital, informed the local police of his intention to perform an abortion on a pregnant 14-year-old who had been dragged into the back of the Wellington Barracks and gang-raped by guardsmen. His test case was successful and enlarged the medical grounds for abortion. But the mood of the time can be sensed from the fact that Bourne and the ward sister kept close watch for eight days on every move the distraught girl made and waited till she completely broke down when taking a vaginal swab before agreeing to go ahead with the abortion.

‘All her assumed cheerfulness disappeared as she wept beyond control. This decided me that she had to be relieved of her pregnancy. In her there was none of the cold indifference of the prostitute.’ [31]

Just as the early days of the Soviet Union had inspired the movement in Britain, so the sudden change of Russian abortion policy in 1936 sharply depressed it, especially since a flood of unfavourable statistics, released in Russia to justify Stalin’s shift in sexual policy, were seized gleefully by the opponents of abortion in the West. Stella Browne refused to believe the official Soviet excuses:

‘I suggest that the law of June 1936 is in no sense a humanitarian measure but a reply to the intensive population policy of Germany and Japan arid at the same time a proprietory gesture towards the Catholics of Czechoslovakia and France.’

Partly as a result of the Workers Birth Control Group’s long campaign in trade union and women’s organisations on maternal morality, an official inter-department commission on abortion was set up in 1939. Despite bitter protests there was only one working class woman on the Commission, Mrs Thurtell, one of George Lansbury’s many feminist daughters and she submitted a firm minority report. But the majority recommended only feeble changes which were never implemented. The Abortion Law Reform Association did revive after the Second World War but as a single issue liberal lobbying body with its eyes firmly on Parliament. Its eventual success in 1967 after die blocking of Kenneth Robinson’s 1961 attempt by Catholic MPs is well documented and of little interest to revolutionaries except in as far as it indicates quite how haphazard sexual legislation is in Britain. [32] Dora Russell who is still very much alive was the only ALRA founder to see the 1967 Act. Janet Chance committed suicide while under treatment for depression aged 68. Stella Browne moved to Liverpool during the Second World War from whence she bombarded ALRA with demands for mass action on abortion at a time when the Executive was barely quorate and they could scarcely pay the phone bill. Yet it is the ideas of these women, inspired by the revolutionary years of the Soviet Union, often isolated within the socialist movement and always ostracised outside it, which have become the faith of the tens of thousands of men and women who have been campaigning against James White over the last months. We should guard their memory. [33]




1. An horrific account of abortion methods is included in Chapter 1 of Sexuality, Feminism and Birth Control by Linda Gordon to be published by Grossman/Viking, Winter 1975.

2. George Greaves speaking at a meeting of the Manchester Statistical Society in 1863, cited in Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England by J.A. and Olive Banks. Liverpool University Press 1964, p.87.

3. Saturday Review, 20 October 1866.

4. The Classic Slum; Salford life in the First Quarter of die Century by Frank Roberts, p.127. Penguin, London, 1971.

5. Maternity; Letters From Working Women collected by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, p.15. London, 1915.

6. August Bebel, Woman Under Socialism, Schocken Paperback reprint from the New York Labor News Press edition of 1904, p.111.

7. See Marx and Engels on Malthus with an introduction and notes by Ronald Meek. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1953. A very clear historical summary which argues the dangers of campaigning over-enthustastically on the ‘Right to choose’ slogan is given in Some Thoughts on ‘A Woman’s Right To Choose by Peri Halpern, Jane Kenrick and Kate Young in the Papers of the 3rd Women and Socialism Conference published by Birmingham Women’s Liberation Groups (at 26 Lonsdale Road, Harborne, Birmingham B17 9RA). For the American experience see Linda Gordon’s excellent The Politics of Population, Birth Control and Eugenics in Radical America, Vol.8 no.4, Summer 1974. Germaine Greer gives a useful account of the Bucharest United Nations Population Conference in Spare Rib, No.33, April 1975.

8. For a detailed but very readable account of the struggle for contraception from a socialist viewpoint see Peter Fryer, The Birth Controllers, Secker and Warburg, London 1965, Corgi 1967. This book, written after Fryer was driven out of full-time activity in revolutionary politics, is often referred to rather disparagingly by his ex-comrades. In fact it may yet prove more politically useful to the modern labour movement than many tracts on more obviously political subjects.

9. An underestimated study of the politics of social imperialism and thus Fabianism is Bernard Semmel’s Imperialism and Social Reform, George Allen and Unwin, London 1960.

10. The Glasgow Herald, 28 May 1920.

11. See First Decrees of Soviet Power, compiled Yuri Akhapkin, Lawrence and Wishart 1970. For a general account of Soviet sexual policy see Chapter 6 of Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1974.

12. From the introduction to Dr Grigorii Batkiss’s book The Sexual Revolution in Russia, Moscow 1923, cited in The Early Homosexual Rights Movement 1864-1935 by John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, Times Change Press, New York 1974.

13. Is Soviet Russia Fit To Be Recognised, Liberty 14 January 1933 reprinted in Women and the Family, Pathfinder Press, New York 1970.

14. Dr A. Gens, The Demand for Abortion in Russia, in Proceedings of the 1929 London Conference of the World League for Sexual Reform, Kegan Routledge and Paul, London 1930.

15. The Sexual Revolution, Wilhelm Reich, Fourth Edition, Noonday 1962, New York, p.196.

16. Cited Reich, op. cit., p.202.

17. Janet Chance, The Cost of English Morals, London 1931, p.19.

18. In Medical Views on Contraception, edited by Sir James Merchant, Hopkinson, London 1926.

19. Dr Lyttleton, The Christian and Birth Control, SPCK.

20. Janet Chance, op. cit., p.82.

21. This very prolonged and extensive campaign was viciously fought by the platform despite the overwhelming votes of the Labour Party Women’s Conferences. After the 1926 decision, the Catholic Home Secretary Wheat!ey refused until 1931 to take action. It is indicative of the masculine bias in labour history that such an eminent historian of the Labour Party as Ralph Miliband utterly failed to notice this debate’s existence. David Coates’ new study The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism, Cambridge University Press, 1975, is no better.

22. The sexual variety and variability among Women, printed by the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology from a lecture given on 14 October 1915.

23. Proceedings of the 1929 World League For Sexual Reform, Abortion and Sterilisation in Denmark.

24. Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Abortion Law Reform Association 1936.

25. The letters were published anonymously by the Abortion Law Reform Association entitled In Desperation, London, 1952.

26. The New Generation, June/July 1926.

27. Reich, op. cit., p.37.

28. Minutes of Founding Conference of the Abortion Law Reform Campaign.

29. In The Right to Abortion in the symposium Abortion, London 1936.

30. See Hidden From History by Sheila Rowbotham, Pluto, London 1973, and Fryer, op. cit., for details of this campaign.

31. See Alec Bourne, A Doctor’s Creed.

32. Abortion Law Reformed by Madeline Simms and Keith Hindell, Peter Owen, London 1971 is a semi-official liberal history of the Abortion Law Reform Campaign with a wealth of factual information and comprehensive bibliography.

33. Stella Browne’s political line in the Communist Party and her trade union work are discussed by Sheila Rowbotham in Chapter 22 of Hidden From History and in much greater detail in her paper on Free Love and Feminism at the 1975 Ruskin History Workshop. A short but interesting article by Keith Hindell on Stella Browne and Janet Chance is in The Listener, 29 June 1972. Dora Russell opened the Rationalist Press Association Oxford Conference on Women in 1974 and her address is reprinted in New Humanist, December 1974. She is currently writing her autobiography.

This article is an extract from a forthcoming book called Sex and Socialism.


Last updated on 19.10.2006