2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. From legalisation in 1967, to the continuing campaign for legalisation in 2017, this is a not so long ago past; One which we should never forget and a right we should never stop fighting for.
Over the next five days, Stylist will explore the impact the Abortion Act has had on the United Kingdom as part of our #TalkingDoesMore campaign.
In the first part, The Past, Olivia Wright speaks to three people who remember when abortion was illegal and unmentionable.
Diane Munday, now 86, bought an illegal abortion on Harley Street in 1961.
She was lucky, she could afford a ‘ten-pound psychiatric opinion.’ Diane was married, with three young children, but her fourth pregnancy in four years led her to an abortionist.
Coming around from the procedure, she remembered a young woman she had known some years before.
A respectable woman, a dress maker, with three young children. She had a backstreet abortion and she died. From that day onwards, Diane made a vow to herself that she would spend the rest of her life if necessary, fighting for access to safe, legal abortions.
Little did she know that she would still be campaigning for total decriminalisation 50 years later.
Diane joined the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), a group founded in 1936, but had fallen into abeyance due to the war.
She, like many other women, had been given a prescription for thalidomide, which thankfully, she didn’t take.
“The thalidomide tragedy really brought the question of abortion back to the fore. Women had very badly deformed babies and I began thinking about what I would do if I knew I was carrying a child who would suffer.
“And that’s when I decided enough was enough, so I joined the ALRA.”
Diane spoke publicly about her experience with an illegal abortion through the ALRA, standing up at campaign meetings and conferences.
“During the tea breaks, respectable, older women wearing hats and gloves, came over to my one by one and said: ‘I have never told anyone before, but I had an abortion in the 1930s when my husband was unemployed.’
“This happened, I would say, thousands of times. It was something women did, but never spoke about. But, the minute I said it, their stories came pouring out.”
Diane’s campaigning, however, did not go unnoticed by her community. The village shop refused to serve her because her money was ‘tainted from doing abortions on the kitchen table.’
She had red paint thrown over her car and notes left reading: ‘This is the blood of the baby you’ve murdered’, as well as death threats, which she still uses on television today.
“I stood for the local council election in the mid-sixties, and the campaigners were out on the pavements shouting: ‘She’s pro-abortion and the anti-Christ.’
“Politics was so much more fun in those days.”
At the 1964 general election, the ALRA sent questionnaires to all Parliamentary candidates asking, if elected, would they support a reform of abortion laws.
David Steel, a young Liberal MP, ticked the box saying ‘yes’. Three years later, David came third in the speakers ballot for Private Member’s Bills, giving him the ‘real opportunity to do something positive.’
The ALRA approached David and asked him to introduce the Abortion Bill, which had already passed in the House of Lords, to the House of Commons. He agreed and abortion was legalised.
David remembers the situation prior to the bill as ‘wretched and appalling.’
“There is a generational difference now. The younger generation don’t know what it was like before 1967. We had something like 30 to 50 deaths a year from criminal abortion, plus an unknown number of suicides.
“Every hospital in the country had patients admitted for septic abortions. All that has gone now. We didn’t invent abortion in 1967, we made it safe and legal.”
The Abortion Act required women to have the permission of two doctors before she would be permitted to have an abortion. Something Diane has spent her life trying to change.
“I remember thinking when we found out it was to be legalised: ‘This is not the end, it is only the beginning. We need to have this as a right and not with the permission of two doctors.’
Germaine Greer, pioneering feminist writer, has taken a different view of the legalisation of abortion in Britain.
She believes it wasn’t women who demanded abortion, but it was ‘our masters who decided we should have it.’
Throughout the 1970s, the Abortion Act came under several attacks and activist groups such as the National Abortion Campaign believed it would be rescinded, but Germaine was convinced that the medico-legal establishment wanted access to abortion.
“They were sick and tired of doing it in hole and corner, paying police, and getting involved with crime. But they also wanted more control over what went on in the uterus. Hence, ultrasound.
“There weren’t enough of us to put any real pressure on the government. We had no leverage. We just had howling in the street, and that’s a mugs game. Gets you zip.
“But what really makes me angry is that women have dealt with this guilt in silence, and it’s heart-breaking.”
Although abortion has been legal for 50 years, there is still huge stigma surrounding the subject. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in her lifetime. But this shame is self-perpetuating, if no one breaks the silence then how do we remove shame?
In the next feature, we will focus on The Present and how the lasting stigma has affected the lives of three women.
We want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts on abortion and leave you own stories in the comments below or on Twitter using the #TalkingDoesMore hashtag. You have nothing to be ashamed of.