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International Socialism, February 1977


Margaret Renn

Abortion in Demand


From International Socialism (1st series), No.95, February 1977, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Abortion in Demand
Victoria Greenwood and Jock Young
Pluto Press £1.65

IN JUNE 1966 the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill had its second reading. It was carried by 223 votes to 29. The 223 were mostly labour, but they included 51 tories.

That bill was to become known as the 1967 Abortion Act when it finally became law. It made abortion legal for the first time in this country for the majority of women who needed, rather than wanted, abortions.

It was a tremendous victory for women and the law reformers who had campaigned for so many years.

Nine years later in February 1975, James White, Labour MP for Glasgow Pollock, introduced a bill to amend the 1967 Act. On its second reading the bill received 203 votes to 88. The bill was intended to reduce the number of abortions, making it harder for working class women to get a safe, legal abortion, quite the opposite of the spirit that moved so many MPs to vote for the 1967 Act.

What happened in those years between 1966 and 1975 to change the vote? What happened to all the good will which made abortion legal? Why did Labour MPs find themselves not just voting to change the law, but themselves moving the bill to do so?

Victoria Greenwood and Jock Young set out to find the explanation in their book Abortion in Demand. Their view of what happened and their researches take them to the following argument.

In the final discussions on the precise wording of the 1967 Act the House of Lords wrote into the major clause that if the risk of pregnancy was ‘greater’ than the risk from abortion a woman should be entitled to an abortion. The word ‘greater’ was preferred to words like grave and serious because these word are so difficult to define in courts of law.

As time goes by and abortion becomes safer, so statistically all pregnancy is of greater risk to mothers than abortion, and therefore all abortion is legal if the law is liberally interpreted.

That had never been the intention of the people who fought so hard to change the law in 1967 and they increasingly found themselves in a dilemma.

Once abortion became legal so the number of abortions increased beyond anyones’ expectations. It was not a simple case of converting the possible number of illegal abortions into a possible number of legal abortions because that didn’t take into account what happened as attitudes changed. For thousands of women who would never have dreamed of having an abortion that secret thought became a real possibility. So the demand for abortion went up. The more it went up, the more the clamouring from those who were opposed to abortion, grew louder. Until:

“Ironically, it was not the anti-abortionists but some of the 1967 Act’s supporters who brought the issue back to Parliament. While ALRA (the Abortion Law Reform Association) were content with the Act and saw the increase in the number of abortion as a mere transference from the illegal to the legal sector, the more conservative reformers who considered abortion more strictly as a therapeutic measure designed to alleviate fringe problems, decided that events had overtaken them.” (p.43)

And so the conservative reformers like James White set out to change the law again. And that is really the problem with this book. Preoccupied with the notion that there are two sorts of reformers, progressives and conservatives, the authors make the mistake of trying to defend James White’s actions.

For those of us involved in the campaign against White’s bill from the outset the lines were clear. There was a law which said abortion was legal, you were either for it or against it. The pro’s and the anti’s. Womens’ organisations, socialist organisations, trade-unionists – men and women, fought the bill on that understanding. It was anti-abortion. For this reason: once legal abortion is restricted then illegal abortion takes its place. Whatever the law, out of necessity women will have abortions. Whether the abortion is safe, in a hospital or clinic, or unsafe in someones back room or kitchen, depends on what you can afford to pay. The racketeers have women over a barrel, and the price goes up. Working-class women bear the brunt of the restrictions in the law because they cannot afford the price. The cost in personal misery and despair, and in physical pain and hardship, are incalculable for them.

That was our argument. And we used it again and again to attack those Labour MPs who were so obviously changing the law against the interests of working class women.

But Greenwood and Young don’t quite see it like that. James White and Leo Abse are misrepresented:

“Although labelled by ALRA and some of the press as anti-abortionists. White and Abse, his main supporter in parliament, are justified in claiming that they have been misrepresented. They have consistently denied that they are against abortion as such, they have merely opposed the abuses of the 1967 Act.” (p.43)

They are in favour of alleviating pain and suffering, they are in favour of abortion for women with problems. Really their intentions are honourable:

“The Amendment was aimed at changing the uneven access to abortion for women of different classes – where the Abortion Act 1967 gave preferential access to the upper middle classes, the Amendment, it was assumed, would give priority to working-class women. It was a reformist proposal.”

It was not. It was a reactionary proposal.

Greenwood and Young are perhaps only trying to put the record straight as they see it. But in fact they end up as apologists for White and Abse.

Both Abse and White are members of the Labour Party but that does not guarantee their good intentions. They are not the same as the vehemently right-wing anti-abortionists like SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). But erstwhile reformers can be the first and worst traitors to the cause as times change.

10 years ago it was possible to fight for reforms. Capitalism was expanding. The idea of equality, of sharing the benefits of production wider than ever before, was popular. All sorts of reforms besides abortions – homosexuality, hanging, comprehensive and nursery education, divorce – were fought for and won.

That has all changed now. Capitalism is in crisis, and with it the ruling class. Threatened by the instability of the system they run they retreat from all those progressive ideas in an attempt to maintain control.

And, as they try to grab back what they once gave out so freely, so those people in this case thousands of women who benefited cling still harder to what they have got, and will fight to protect it.

The book has been written because there is a campaign to stop the changes in the law going through Parliament. The Campaign, organised by NAC (the National Abortion Campaign) has seen the biggest women’s demonstrations since the days of the suffragettes. Petitions, pickets, marches and meetings have involved thousands of women previously untouched by active politics.

Socialist organisations committed themselves for the first time in almost 50 years to a campaign on a womens issue. So did the trade union movement. Trade union banners were on the demonstrations, on an issue which a few years ago was strictly taboo.

But of all this hardly a word. NAC warrants a passing reference in the introduction, a brief mention in chapter three, and a final mention in a fairly cursory analysis of the way forward for the campaign in the last five pages of the book. The conclusion is about as unsatisfactory as the book.

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