The return of “backstreet” abortion

by Liam Gibson

There have been many dark days in the history of the abortion battle in the UK — when the Abortion Act was passed in 1967, when abortion up to birth on grounds of disability was legalised in 1990, and more recently when, in 2019, Parliament exercised its raw political power to repeal laws that had saved more than 100,000 babies from abortion in Northern Ireland. By comparison, what happened on Wednesday, 30 March 2022, may not seem as dramatic but that day saw the fulfilment of a long-awaited victory by the abortion lobby. When MPs voted to make the Pills by Post scheme a permanent part of England’s abortion regime, it marked the completion of a revolution which began in June 1966 with David Steel’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill.1

By that time, there had been seven previous attempts to legalise abortion in England and Wales but only the Abortion Bill introduced by the Labour peer, Lord Silkin (in November 1965 and again in April 1966), had made any significant progress. Silkin urged Steel to adopt his Bill which had already been passed by the Lords but the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) persuaded him to seek a broader range of proposals. However, as Professor John Keown points out in Abortion, Doctors and the Law, when Steel’s Bill emerged from the legislative process, it no longer reflected the thinking of ALRA but instead bore a striking resemblance to the recommendations of Britain’s medical bodies.2

None of the medical associations was opposed to reform of abortion law but interest in it varied according to the field of medicine they represented. The gynaecologists — who would be expected to perform the actual operations — were the least enthusiastic, only favouring limited reform while psychiatrists supported extensive change. The one area in which all the professional bodies were united was their firm opposition to anything that would compromise their clinical freedom. While ALRA had set the stage for liberalisation, it was the Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association (BMA) which played the leading role in transforming the public image of abortion from a criminal offence to a medical procedure. Without this, it seems unlikely that Steel’s Bill would have gathered the overwhelming support it received from MPs.

Central to this transformation were the stories of women killed or injured whilst undergoing so-called “backstreet” abortions. Such stories stressed the image of the woman as the victim of abortion to the exclusion of the child who was aborted. These tragic stories would only come to an end, so the reformers argued, when abortion was legal and carried out under medical supervision.

But not only would doctors protect women from being preyed upon by backstreet abortionists but, it was claimed, they would also act as the “gatekeepers”, preventing abortion from becoming available on demand. A report from a special committee of the BMA highlighted three safeguards in particular: “relating to consultation, the status of the operating doctor, and the place of termination”.3 By the time the Act came into force on 27 April 1968, the intervention of the medical profession had ensured that its traditional position of authority over the recommendation and performance of abortion not only remained in place but was significantly enhanced.4

But the medicalisation of abortion was not the ultimate goal of the abortion lobby, it was merely an essential first step. Commenting on the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Act, Labour MP, Lena Jeger, observed: 

“The great advance of the Act was to limit the scope of the argument to a question between the woman and her doctor, to the virtual exclusion of the police, lawyers and the courts. The next step is logically for the question to be decided by a woman alone, and this will come when she can act alone. The future will be decided more by science than by law. For as soon as self-administered medicaments are available, no law, no reactionary doctors, no impoverished National Health Service, no overcrowded hospital will be able to contradict a woman’s right of choice.” 5

And on the same occasion, Vera Houghton, the chairman of ALRA and close ally of Steel outside Parliament, predicted further change, writing:

“Any future review of the law must take into account the development of post-coital or early abortion pill to the point where it can be safely self-administered. When medical intervention is no longer necessary and medical supervision is only a precautionary measure, the Abortion Act will have little or no significance for early abortion.” 6

When the House of Commons backed the proposal to make “do-it-yourself’ abortion a permanent feature of British abortion law it ended (for all practical purposes) the pretence that abortion is a medical procedure. But abortion was never health care. No matter how it was portrayed, every abortion is an act of lethal violence directed at an unborn child. With over 9 million abortions in the UK since Steel’s Bill became law, the damage inflicted on British society goes far beyond the children who are killed and the women who are often left to cope with the long-term physical and emotional consequences. Ending the life of an unborn child is now so commonplace that it is to be regarded as routine as ordering the delivery of takeaway food.

Last week’s vote has literally brought home the horror of abortion. The safeguards of “consultation, the status of the operating doctor, and the place of termination”, for what they were worth, are now largely irrelevant — an in-person consultation is no longer required and every family dwelling is now an approved place for an abortion. The Pills by Post scheme, introduced as an emergency measure during the Covid pandemic achieved what, up to now, abortion advocates had failed to accomplish. It has sidelined medical supervision and ushered in the return of backstreet abortion on a scale that would have been unimaginable 55 years ago. 

The significance of this change in the law has been almost entirely overshadowed by the terrible loss of life in the war in Ukraine but while we pray fervently for peace we should remember that: “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion because it is a direct war, a direct killing – direct murder by the mother herself”.7 As it has been stated many times, there will never be peace in the world unless there is peace in the womb.

  1. This was the original title of the Bill. It only became known as the Abortion Bill when it reached the committee stage in the House of Lords.
  2. John Keown, Abortion, Doctors and the Law: Some aspects of the legal regulation of abortion in England from 1803 to 1982, (CUP,1988), p 85.
  3. Ibid, p 90.
  4. Ibid, p 108-9.
  5. Abortion Ten Years On (Birth Control Trust, 1978) p 5.
  6. Ibid, p 4.
  7. Mother Teresa, Nobel Lecture, 11 December 1979. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1979/teresa/lecture/