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Julie Waterson

The Politics of Abortion

(January 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 105, January 1988, pp. 13–16.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

David Alton’s Bill is an attack on abortion rights. It is merely the latest in a series of attacks on the 67 Act. However the roots of the debate on sexuality, contraception and abortion go much deeper.
Julie Waterson examines this history

THE FIGHT to achieve sexual liberation is not a new one. Debate and argument over birth control and a woman’s right to control her body have raged since the beginnings of capitalism. The echoes can still be heard today.

The socialist tradition is of particular interest today for all socialists fighting the Alton Bill. It is certainly a tradition studded with flaws, inconsistencies and one which often drew reactionary conclusions.

Sexual radicals in the late 1820s and early 1830s in America started publishing material on birth control and “free love” (relationships without marriage). Notable were the utopian socialists William Thompson and Robert Dale Owen – son of the British utopian Robert Owen, who is said to have provided condoms in his New Lanark factory in the early 1800s.

They believed in control over emotions and sexuality. In the words of Robert Dale Owen from his book Moral Physiology published in 1830:

“Her feelings, her interests ... should be an imperative law. She it is who bears the burden, and therefore with her also should the decision rest.”

Birth control was practised in the Utopian communities in America. In Oneida in the 1870s “male continence” was practised, whereby men held back their orgasms and diverted their sperm into the woman’s urethra. This was developed by Alice Stockham in 1896 who argued for “soul unions” through “karezza” – prolonged intercourse without orgasm for men and women.

Progressively they saw sex separately from reproduction, believing in experimentation and demanding fuller, better relationships.

However, it wasn’t the politics of Owen and Thompson which came to dominate the field of birth control in the later nineteenth century, it was those of the eugenicists, who largely based their ideas on the works of Malthus.

MALTHUS, who wrote in the mid-1800s, argued that world poverty was due to overpopulation. His solution was the restriction of births amongst the lower classes. He constructed graphs depicting the mass despair and destitution people would face if they didn’t stop breeding. World production, according to Malthus, couldn’t meet world reproduction.

This led the Malthusians to pronounce the world over-populated by “degenerates”. They berated the middle classes as “selfish” for limiting the size of their families and recommended sterilisation for “mental defectives”.

They were patronising and condescending towards the working class. Their attitude towards strikes was: “The only good strike is one against large families.” Indeed they were viciously anti-working class, demanding their numbers be limited. They also called on middle class women to stop using birth control and abortion, saying they demonstrated frivolity and self-indulgence reflecting a love of luxury.

Whilst many feminists, socialists and radicals formally rejected the more reactionary Malthusian positions, their inability to reject them in reality tied sexual politics to the apron strings of reaction. Indeed, many joined the early twentieth century Malthusian League (later the New Generation League) to campaign for contraception amongst the working classes.

It is without doubt that contraception and abortion were very widespread – especially in working class areas where women worked.

The crude birth rate fell from 36.6 per 1,000 in 1876 to 24 per 1,000 by the outbreak of the First World War. This decline started in the upper and middle classes in the 1870s and 1880s when middle class women began to find a role in the professions.

This period provided middle class women with careers – in teaching, in the civil service, in journalism – where previously their only “career” was marriage.

Earlier the defeat of the Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s led to the restructuring of the working class family which had been torn apart by capitalism. It created smaller, healthier families across all classes. The poor, however, bore the brunt of the reactionary ideology which accompanied this restructuring.

The Poor Laws of 1834 introduced “punitive” sanctions – against women who bore illegitimate children. Priority, in terms of meagre benefits, was given to “respectable” (married) families. Illegitimacy declined by 40 percent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but infant and maternal mortality remained high.

These changes combined to assure the bosses of their future source of surplus value – healthy workers for the factories. They don’t, however, fully explain the changing pattern of childbirth rates.

For an explanation of this we must look at women’s role in the workforce and their attempts to control their fertility.

FOR poor families repeated periods of pregnancy destroyed the woman’s health and, where work was available (as it was in textiles), limited her ability to earn. Poverty, bad housing and poor health led to early deaths for parents and children. Infant mortality decreased after 1911, but it took until the 1940s for the number of maternal deaths caused by childbirth to decrease (childbirth was second only to tuberculosis as the major cause of death amongst women at the turn of the century).

Because of the unreliability and unavailability of contraception, abortion was the most common and accepted method of controlling fertility.

This was recognised early on in the nineteenth century. In 1822 Richard Carlile received a letter from Francis Place, who published one of the first pamphlets on birth control, saying that “the means to destroy the foetus had been practised by many married women”. He listed among them wives of tailors and plumbers and skilled craftsmen. Although abortion was made illegal in 1803 and tightened up in the 1861 Offences against Persons Act, imprisonment of abortionists only happened if women died or were seriously injured.

The 1860s and 1870s saw abortion being debated in the press as the “flight from maternity”. Medical journals mention the widespread use of drugs and chemicals to induce abortion.

A study of birth control in northern England between 1876 and 1906 showed that abortion was common in 26 of 104 districts surveyed. All 26 were urban working class areas. Eleven of these were Lancashire textile towns where the decline in the birth rate was higher than average due to the large numbers of married women working.

Higher than average falls in the birth rate were noted in all areas where industrial employment was available for women.

Despite the evident social and economic necessity for working class women to control their fertility and despite the glaring poverty, many “radicals” refused to support birth control and abortion as they were associated with promiscuity, prostitution and venereal disease.

THE last half of the nineteenth century was a period of intense social upheaval as the capitalist system fought to consolidate itself through the state and the church. The ruling classes fought back working class opposition and successfully saw through the economic crisis of the 1870s. However, the period did produce a layer of people opposed to their methods and many of their ideas.

Almost exclusively middle and upper class, the radicals, including the eugenicists, formed clubs and committees and attempted movements to challenge the prevailing ideology. The church was challenged, relationships were analysed and the working masses were to be liberated.

Working class radicals of the day – like the leaders of the American syndicalist union the Wobblies, and many British and French feminists and socialists – were influenced by the ideas of the radicalised petite-bourgeoisie.

Some of the eugenicists had openly right wing views. Yet this still didn’t protect them from attack by the state.

Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were hauled up to the Old Bailey in 1877, charged with morally corrupting the young and inciting them to obscene and unnatural practices. As leaders of the British Freethought (atheist) movement, they published Fruits of Philosophy, which was written in 1830 by a Boston freethinking doctor, Dr Knowlton. He had already spent three months in jail as a result of this pamphlet.

The pamphlet adhered to Malthus’s work, but outlined methods of contraception including condoms, sponges and postcoital syringing with chemical solutions. Chastity would be preserved, it argued, if people married young and without fear. Insanity too would be prevented if people didn’t indulge in “solitary gratification”.

The issue of sexuality created much argument and debate. Tensions mounted and eventually formed clearly along class lines. This is illustrated by the behaviour of the exclusive radical Men and Women’s Club. Karl Pearson, a socialist and future eugenicist, founded the club in 1885 to discuss “from the historical and scientific as distinguished from the theological standpoint” the relationships between the sexes.

It had 20 members but many associate members and held open meetings. All were “freethinkers” – middle class and Oxbridge educated. Included among them were Olive Schreiner and Annie Besant.

Although some gay men were involved, homosexuality was viewed as the male preserve of a certain social class. Most discussion took place around marriage and marital sex.

Eleanor Marx was refused entry because of her “free union” with Edward Aveling. She was cursed by Annie Besant in the pages of the Freethought journal for lowering moral standards and bringing the movement into disrepute (since Aveling was a freethinker).

The group never reached agreement on birth control. Some women argued that it “vulgarised the emotions” leading to immorality. The majority agreed that birth control allowed men more control over women’s bodies as men were “beasts of prey”.

A minority argued that sex could bring mutual pleasure to both sexes. The majority view equated this with prostitution! They were also against what they termed “legalised prostitution” – birth control for middle class women or state benefits for mothers at home – as both, they said, would legalise men’s control over women’s bodies.

Debates which unified the club centred on the grossly unequal divorce laws and sexist attitudes towards middle class women entering the professions for the first time. Those inequalities led rich women to openly challenge and reject society’s view of them as feminine and passive.

In the same milieu was a small but influential body which attempted to see sex as a science – the sexologists. They argued that women and men needed a sexual outlet and that it was emotionally and physically damaging not to have sex, although they still advocated a passive role for women.

SEXOLOGY became associated with the “New Moralists” at the turn of the century. They argued for free unions and vigorous heterosexuality. Active sexuality was the key, whereas spinsters were described as “the withered tree, the aciduous vestal under whose pale shadow we chill and whiten”.

The sexual radical Havelock Ellis argued against the sexologists. He said that to label women as passive, with a sexual appetite lower than men’s, would be a threat to relationships. It would render women frigid, whilst men were deemed to play the role of pleasing their wives.

Nonetheless the New Moralists were progressive in arguing for relationships to be freely entered and freely left.

Sexual relationships, abortion and birth control were more openly discussed by wider groups of people at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was partly due to the rising influence of socialist and radical ideas, but also a reflection of how widespread the practice of abortion and birth control was.

At the end of the First World War the 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act was introduced which established, however inadequately, health visitors, state food provisions and some day nurseries. Childbirth increasingly came under the wing of the state, ensuring healthy and fit workers for the future.

Still abortion was the most common form of limiting births. The 1926–9 Royal Commission on Population heard:

“... the methods used [to limit family size] were very rarely contraceptives. They were limits applied not before but after pregnancy was assumed to have occurred ... The married woman was in the habit of anticipating her menstrual period by drenching herself with violent purgatives, or by resorting to any other of the reputed means for interruption of pregnancy – not only chemicals, but physical.”

RECORDS from clinics which served working class women in the 1920s and 1930s show “that a third to a half of all pregnancy losses resulted in miscarriage, natural or self-induced”. In Liverpool withdrawal was the most favoured form of birth control, with condoms coming a poor second. Abortifacients pills and implements came third. It was noted in Salford that abortion was “almost a convention” when married women got “caught” again.

Condoms were far too expensive for workers, while they were widely used by the middle classes. In 1920 they cost from three shillings up to ten shillings a dozen when a skilled worker earned 30 shillings a week.

Methods of contraception for women were expensive and required space and time to mix lotions and potions. With the inadequacies of “withdrawal”, abortion remained widespread. For example, it’s conservatively estimated that in 1935 there were 68,000 abortions and 512 deaths resulting from abortion.

Abortifacients were cheap and widely advertised in the press. Lead was the most common. Only a “pennyworth” of drugs did the trick, but could also leave you blind, paralysed or dead.

The Women’s Co-operative Guild, whose membership comprised mostly skilled workers’ wives, noted (with some disdain) that birth control was certainly widely practised and abortion certainly wasn’t frowned upon by their membership.

Marie Stopes set up the first birth control clinic in Holloway, north London in 1921, which fitted women with cervical caps. She argued the necessity for such clinics, especially in cities, saying, “We have been breeding revolutionaries.”

CONSIDERING her arguments and those of the still powerful eugenicists, it is no surprise that many active trade unionists and socialists at the time rejected them out of hand as anti-working class. Word was arriving of the work done by the Bolsheviks in Russia, of the sexual liberation and gains for women made during the Russian Revolution. Debates in the newly formed Communist Party’s paper, the Communist, centred on the individualism and reactionary aspects of the birth controllers.

Margaret Sanger, when visiting Glasgow in 1920, said she met men who were “ready to fight the ancient battle of Marx against Malthus”. She had been very militant in the early battles for birth control, but by now she had fully rejected her radical past and was looking for conservative support for contraception as a “single issue”.

Marx and Malthus represented two traditions which couldn’t be married. Stella Browne attempted and failed miserably. She was a eugenicist who joined the Communist Party and professed that only Communists and feminists were fit to breed for the new race, saying that children born from free love were superior.

She, alongside many others, professed that individuals’ characteristics were genetically determined, whilst Marxism argues that society and its individuals are materially determined.

Stella Browne left the CP in 1923, even though it fully supported birth control, to join the Labour Party.

ALONGSIDE Dora Russell she and others formed the Workers’ Birth Control Group in 1924 to campaign inside the Labour Party. They were derided by the leadership which argued that sex and politics shouldn’t mix. At Labour’s 1925 conference, where support for birth control was lost, the top table stated:

“... the subject of birth control is in its nature not one which should be made a party political issue, but should remain a matter upon which members of the party should be free to hold and promote their individual convictions.”

That year 15 local branches supported the pro-birth control motion, more than supported any other resolution with the exception of one calling for affiliation to the CP. Both were stopped by the bloc vote of the trade unions.

Throughout the 1930s the struggles continued in the Labour Party. In 1936 the Abortion Law Reform Association was formed by Browne and Russell. Even up to the campaign for the 1967 Act they refused to fight for abortion as a class issue.

Many of the sexual radicals adhered to the politics that Russell, Browne and co adopted, ignoring the revolutionary socialist tradition and the gains of the Russian Revolution. This led them into the lap of the Labour Party and cross-class alliances to fight for rights which in reality were only denied to working class women.

For middle and upper class women the desire to control their bodies has gone no further than demanding equal rights with men of their class. For working class women the demand for abortion and contraception means much more. It means demanding the right to be free from poverty, oppression and exploitation.

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