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International Socialism, April 1977


V. Greenwood & J. Young

Abortion in Demand: The Authors Protest


From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, p.11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IT WAS with a degree of incredulity that we read Margaret Renn’s review of our book Abortion in Demand in International Socialism 95. For a book which attempts from first to last page a sustained attack on the reformism of Leo Abse and James White, to be caricatured as an apology and defence of their position is beyond our comprehension. We argued throughout that to understand the politics of abortion reform, one must comprehend the underlying social philosophy of the Labour Party. That just as the Labour Party is reformist in economic matters it is reformist in its attitudes to moral and social questions. It is a viewpoint that holds that there is little fundamentally wrong with the social order, harmony and collective interest prevail, and those problems which remain can be eradicated by artful social engineering and piecemeal reform. Crime, poverty, mental illness etc., are not problems endemic to the social structure, but merely marginal, peripheral issues which a little benign state intervention can easily eliminate.

The 1967 Act reflected precisely such a viewpoint on abortion, its architects never intended abortion on demand – for to do that would necessitate admitting that fundamental problems emanate from the social order. To perceive a need for abortion on demand would not only challenge the efficacy of the economic system, but would question that most cherished institution, the nuclear family. Thus the 1967 Act was intended to cater for that small group of women deemed to be in dire physical, mental or social distress. Working class women, as a whole, were not granted the right, nor the facilities, to abortion under the 1967 Act. It was the ‘greater risk’ loophole in the legislation which allowed the possibility of abortion for a greater number of women – but precisely those women whom the Bill’s architects were, not concerned. Thus the intention of Abse and White, who are fairly and squarely in the reformist camp – is to tighten up the legislation so as to return to the original spirit of the act and allow only that tiny minority of women with ‘problems’, abortions.

Margaret Renn however would seem to believe that since 1967 abortion has been readily and freely available for all women, when she blandly informs us that now ‘they try to grab back what they once gave out so freely.’ Whilst the 1967 Act was an undoubted gain to women, to present it as an absolute victory is naive in the extreme. Let us set the record straight; they never freely gave anything in 1967, their largesse was exceedingly limited and it was premised on their ideologies and interests. And when that bounty appeared to have misfired, administrative measures have been implemented and new legislation proposed (the White and Benyon Bills) to amend the errors of their own controlling measures.

Furthermore does Renn really believe that

‘All sorts of reforms besides abortion – homosexuality, hanging, comprehensive and nursery education, divorce – were fought for and won.’

A perfunctory chat with any comprehensive school teacher, or a superficial glance through the pages of Gay News would seem to deny the extent of that victory. Gains may be won, but reformism creates its own contradictions.

We are admonished for our ‘cursory analysis’ of the ‘way forward for the campaign’. The last chapter of the book considers the role of one issue campaigns, the need for a mass movement, the opposition to professional counselling, the corollaries of the right to choose, the strategy of interim demands etc.

None of these concerns are deemed worthy of mention by Margaret Renn. Yet at a time when the abortion campaign faces its greatest threat in the shape of the William Benyon Bill, when the possibilities of abortion have already been whittled away by ‘administrative measures’ and ‘cuts’, and when there is considerable dissension in NAC as to the questions of strategy, it is vital that a fundamental reappraisal of the campaign’s tactics and goals occurs. The way forward requires sound politics and that demands genuine attempts at an analysis of the ideologies and issues that surround the abortion debate.

Our book represented such an attempt, comradely criticism on substantive grounds would have been welcomed; the glib misrepresentation and denunciation gets us nowhere.


V. Greenwood
J. Young

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