The Abortion Act 1967 -
October 12, 2002
October 2002 sees the 35th anniversary of the Abortion Act
1967. The following article appeared in The
Guardian to mark that occasion.
One in three
Abortion often the subject
of secretiveness and widely thought of as relatively rare,
is actually a commonplace experience for women in Britain.
The day-to-day reality seems at odds with the present state
of the law on abortion. Here six women tell their stories.
Interviews by Rachel Shabi
Saturday October 12, 2002
It is a commonly quoted statistic
- that one in four women will have an abortion during their
lifetime. In fact, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians
and Gynaecologists, that is an underestimate. At least a third
of British women will have an abortion by the age of 45 (excluding
Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal). In 2001,
there were 186,000 legal abortions carried out in England
and Wales (17 per 1,000 women aged 15-44). That figure remains
fairly constant from year to year, although there was a peak
in 1996, coinciding with a health scare over the pill.
Under the terms of the Abortion
Act of 1967, termination is legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy,
subject to approval from two doctors. To 'qualify' for an
abortion, a woman must prove that having a baby would cause
her or her family greater physical or mental damage than not
having one. Effectively, this places the power to decide in
the hands of the medical profession, and does not provide
women with the legal right to choose. The UK differs from
other European nations and the US in this respect. 'The current
law tells you that there are very few politicians who will
pay anything more than lip service to the idea of women's
rights,' says Dr Ellie Lee (pictured top, left), editor of
Abortion: Whose Right?
While in practice many doctors
interpret the law liberally, they are nonetheless able to
block access to services on the basis of moral opposition.
A survey conducted by Marie Stopes International (MSI) in
1999 found that 18% of GPs were opposed to abortion, yet they
do not have to declare this objection to patients. According
to Alice Richardson, chairwoman of the National Abortion Campaign,
women report numerous incidents of 'notes lost, decisions
delayed and confidentiality broken' by doctors. Many women
prefer to refer to a specialist abortion provider, such as
the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) or MSI - both
of which are charities. If seeking an NHS abortion, however,
a woman initially has to go through her surgery or family
She may then face a second
hurdle: NHS provision for abortions is patchy, resulting in
what Richardson describes as 'abortion by postcode'. The amount
of funding made available for abortion varies widely from
borough to borough: in 2001, for example, 96% of abortions
in North Cumbria were NHS-funded; in Dorset, the figure was
61%; in Kingston and Richmond, in Surrey, meanwhile, only
50%. Health authorities set different time ceilings on abortions
- in some areas, they are refused to women who are more than
11 weeks pregnant. Waiting lists - even for an initial appointment
- are commonplace. Much of the burden of abortion provision
is undertaken by charities such as MSI and BPAS. In 2001,
33% of NHS abortions were contracted to such organisations,
while 24% of all abortions were private - at a cost, on average,
Public opinion polls show
high rates of appro-val for abortion, but there is still a
minority that disagrees. The Society for the Protection of
the Unborn Child campaigns on this issue and seeks a tightening
of the current law. Its education officer, Katherine Hampton
(top), says, 'It is too easy for people to get abortions and
I don't think they are given enough information - at the time
they are considering abortion and earlier, at school.' Pro-choice
campaigners, meanwhile, advocate greater honesty in this area:
'Accidental pregnancy is so predictable, and so much a part
of having a sexual relationship,' says Lee. 'We are dishonest
in saying we can be 100% in control. It is simply not true.'
A spokesperson for MSI describes the current abortion law
as 'paternalistic, way out of date, and long due for reform'.
Mary Williamson, 66, Colchester
It was in the 1980s, I was
44 or 45. The cap failed and I found, to my absolute horror,
that I was pregnant. I'd come off the pill because of a health
scare and thought that there was less and less chance that
I would become pregnant. It was pretty awful - the whole idea
of having another child was totally unplanned and unlooked
for. I had one child who was then 19 and didn't want any more.
I'm married and we discussed it. I told my mother and there
was no disapproval at all - if I'd have had to go privately,
she would have helped me. My daughter was in America at the
time - I can't remember when I told her, but it certainly
wasn't a secret. I had a national health abortion, which was
very quick - but it was traumatic because of the decision
to make, and also because I'm old enough to remember when
it would have been a fate worse then death to need an abortion.
I was pleasantly surprised
at the availability. I think I was six weeks pregnant when
I realised, and a couple of weeks later I'd had the abortion.
My GP wasn't too hot, but he did put me on to a consultant,
who was brilliant - no judgmental remarks or anything. I must
have been quite worried at the time, but looking back it was
a relatively straightforward procedure, which was almost totally
due to having a very caring consultant. I overheard him saying
to a nurse, "This is what the 1967 Abortion Act was all
The doctor who referred me
to the consultant was fairly old and I had to bring it up
- he probably wanted me to say the word "abortion"
rather than him. In hospital, they kept asking whether I wanted
to go ahead, but I guess they had to in case I changed my
mind. I had it on a Wednesday and went back to work the next
Monday. A year later, I had a sterilisation, just to make
sure it didn't happen again.
I've absolutely no regrets,
I'll always remember the enormous feeling of relief when I
woke up in hospital. I've never been mentally ill, or any
of the things they say you are going to be - I'm not walking
around damaged beyond repair. I'm very upfront and open about
it, and I feel it should be talked about. It is a private
and shameful thing in many people's eyes - not, I hasten to
add, in mine. People are a little bit shocked and surprised
when I talk about it; they take it for granted that I'm against
abortion, partly because of my age and partly because I appear
very "respectable" - we live in a small village
and I was a lecturer in further education. The perception
is that people like me aren't supposed to have abortions.
Sally Helliwell, 35, London
I was 23 and about to go
to university. Though I was in a relationship and living with
the bloke, I definitely didn't want to have children. I was
on the pill, so it was a bit of a shock. But I didn't really
consider any other option - there was no question, either
for me or for my partner at the time. I never had any dilemmas
about it - it was just a practical thing to do. I think it
makes a big difference if you are in a situation where you
might want children, but you aren't quite sure. That might
have an impact on your decision.
I approached the whole thing
in a very matter-of-fact way. We made an appointment at the
doctor's and had to go through the rigmarole of getting two
doctors' consent, although fortunately it was fairly straightforward
and I didn't get any hassle. It was very early on when I found
out - seven weeks - and I had to wait to have the abortion,
they said it was too small to do it any earlier.
There are two images I remember
of going to hospital. Seeing this girl I knew in the waiting
room and lying on the operating table waiting for the general
anaesthetic to take effect. I can't really remember any of
the details - but why would you? I don't remember getting
my teeth taken out, either. Even giving birth, which I did
18 months ago, is fading from my memory pretty quickly.
I did have an instance when
I was 19 and thought that I was pregnant, and went to see
a doctor who made it very clear, even before I had the tests,
that she was anti-abortion. I was scared stiff that I was
pregnant and was insinuating that I wasn't going to have the
baby. She made it clear that it wasn't an option as far as
she was concerned.
So when I was pregnant at
23, I thought that was going to happen again, but it didn't.
My impression from that is that it very much depends on the
doctor - you can be lucky or unlucky. When it comes to practicalities,
most people think abortion is OK, but that can change when
you talk about it in the abstract as a moral issue; then there's
this whole thing that women are supposed to be traumatised
by it. And the whole process of doctors ticking boxes to say
that you'll be more traumatised by having a child than if
you don't, to say that your mental health is at risk if you
go through with the pregnancy - that puts across the idea
that somehow you are doing something you shouldn't be doing.
Or something that will affect you in the future, when really
there is no reason why it should.
I was very confident about
what I wanted to do. It was a long time ago and I haven't
really thought about it since. I didn't even think about it
when I had my child. It is very different finding out you've
made a mistake and working out how you're going to deal with
it, then wanting a child, getting pregnant and looking forward
to having one.
Sue Hulbert, 40, Leeds
It was May 12 2000 when I
had the abortion, a date that is fixed in my mind. The next
day that sticks is November 19, because that's when my child
was due. Whatever anybody says, there will always be a life
missing from my life. I hope and pray that one day I will
see him and that he will forgive me.
I was involved in a relationship
that had problems, but the baby was planned. Every relationship
goes through rocky patches - I just didn't know how rocky.
As soon as I got pregnant, my partner refused to talk about
the baby. Things between us got worse, strained, we started
to argue a lot and he became quite aggressive. In the end,
we had an enormous argument and I remember screaming at him,
"I don't want you or your baby." On the day we should
have gone to the hospital for the first pregnancy consultation,
we actually went and spoke about abortion.
The hospital made it very
easy for me. Although the first consultant did say he wouldn't
do it, he put me in touch with someone who would. Within a
fortnight, I was booked in. My pre-abortion meeting gave me
no indication that the abortion was going to cause me any
damage, either mentally or physically. On the morning I went
in, I was distraught. Even up to that point, I had an idea
that I would never go through with it. But I went in, was
examined, given a pessary, and two hours later I had the abortion.
I woke up in tears - I knew
that I'd done the wrong thing. I had a haemorrhage - which
was frightening and painful - and another one four weeks later.
But, mentally, the problems became more debilitating. The
overarching thought in my mind was that I had killed my child.
I felt so guilty, I lost all confidence, all my self-esteem,
and I wasn't able to do my job. In the end, last December
I took an overdose, because I'd decided my life wasn't worth
anything. I didn't feel worthy of being a mother to my two
kids [from an earlier relationship]: I thought if they ever
found out about the baby, they would hate me, and because
I was so depressed and crying all the time, I wasn't being
a proper mother to them. I spent a long time after that in
a hospital psychiatric unit. In the meantime I've had counselling
from the British Victims of Abortion [a helpline for those
experiencing physical and emotional difficulties after an
The thing that makes me angry
is that I was never told what the side-effects might be, by
anybody. I was so weak and I was put under pressure by my
partner, who had lowered my self-confidence, anyway. I felt
as though I couldn't cope with anything. You are in a very
vulnerable state, it's a time when you need guidance and structure
- and it simply wasn't there.
Without a doubt, I would have
been better off having that baby. However many problems I
could have had being pregnant, I didn't know I would have
far more not having that child. I've had nightmares - I've
seen foetuses in hospital kidney bowls, crowds of people shouting
at me that I'm a murderer, puréed foetuses being splattered
on windows. I have difficulty with other people's two-year-olds
- it makes social interaction very hard. I lost work, money
- you can't describe the cost of it, or the frustration when
people don't understand what you are trying to tell them.
Anonymous, 32, London
I was 27 and had been going
out with someone for three months. I found out I was pregnant
after we broke up. It was a split condom. I never told my
ex, I had no desire to - he's the sort of person who, instead
of making me feel better, would have needed me to reassure
him. I felt awful finding out I was pregnant. I didn't want
to be, it was really horrible. I went to my GP and was really
scared: you hear so many horror stories about doctors refusing
abortions, and I knew that, if he did refuse, I wouldn't be
able to afford one privately. But he was actually really good
and referred me to a hospital within a week. Then I had to
wait four weeks to have my operation, which was just awful.
Not for one moment did I think I was doing the wrong thing,
but waiting put me in a state of temporary paralysis. I just
wanted it to be over - I couldn't move on, get on with anything.
It was a horrible time, going through this so soon after the
break-up of a relationship. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat
- it wasn't good.
I felt stupid being in that
position. I'm an intelligent person and I felt like I should
have known better. You still think, "God, I'm so stupid,
how could I have got into this position?" Even though
I wouldn't think that of anyone else, I thought it about me.
A friend came to the hospital
with me and the actual termination was fine. You turn up in
the morning and are home by lunchtime, watching videos in
the afternoon. When I woke up from the operation, I instantly
knew I wasn't pregnant any more - I felt a bit weird, but
mostly I just felt relief. I've never felt at all guilty about
it, and now I just don't think about it. The only thing I
regret is that I was ever in that position in the first place.
I would never tell my mum,
it would upset her and she doesn't need to know. I don't regret
what I did, but it is still not really acceptable to talk
about. You wouldn't think that one in three women has an abortion.
There is a lot of stigma attached, and the anti-abortionists
like to claim the moral high ground. Plus we're not very good
at talking about sex generally - and abortion is one of those
things that is supposed to happen to other people.
It was three years ago. I
was at university. At the time, I was very stressed because
I was having problems with my family and it was interfering
with my studies. My doctor put me on antidepressants and told
me they would stop me getting pregnant as well. A month after
that, I got pregnant. As soon as I found out, I knew I wanted
a termination. At no point did I feel I wanted a child - it
just wasn't right for me at the time. I was in what turned
out to be a long-term relationship, but at that point we hadn't
known each other long.
I was referred to a private
clinic on the NHS and had the termination. I was lucky; I
know that's not the case for everybody - in my area there
is not very good NHS provision. But part of that was that
my doctor realised she'd made a very big mistake, so from
then on it went very smoothly.
I didn't tell my family, but
my mother is quite nosy and she went through my bag and found
a letter. My family went completely mad. It was only then,
facing other people's extreme opinions, that I was affected
badly. It wasn't the abortion itself, but the reactions of
my family that made it difficult - being told by them that
I had killed, that I was a murderer. It really upset me. I
was studying, away from home, a poor student, and my family
messed it up for a few months, made it difficult to concentrate
because of endless phone calls and arguments. They said it
was because they're strict Muslims, but I know now that views
within the religion vary quite a lot, especially on early
abortions. It may have been a cultural issue as well for my
family - it just wasn't considered acceptable to have an abortion.
But I was quite confident
about it at the time, and I still am. I felt that I had a
right to do what I did. Purely on an emotional level, it was
clear to me from the beginning that this wasn't for me, that
I didn't want to be controlled by children I didn't want,
that this wasn't a future I wanted at that stage. I thought
I had done the adult thing, and it seemed that what my family
wanted was for me to be like a child, allow my life to be
shaped by circumstances rather than me having agency in my
life. It doesn't bother me what they think. What bothers me
is that they got in my way and made things much harder for
me. I respect anyone who wouldn't choose abortion for themselves.
What I don't respect is someone ruining another person's life
by telling them that they can't have one.
Anne Quesney, 36, London
About four years ago, I had
a total accident, a failure of contraception when a condom
split, and suddenly found myself pregnant. I decided to have
an abortion because I don't want to have children, full stop.
It's something my partner and I decided long ago, so for me
it was the only solution. I never thought that decision was
right or wrong. It's just a choice women make, and that was
it. There were no kind of moral considerations, it was just
a practical solution.
I went to the doctor and told
him that I thought I was pregnant and wanted an abortion.
He was very supportive, so everything happened straightforwardly
and very quickly - I was so adamant about my decision that
it made things easier. I was sent to a Marie Stopes clinic,
but it was paid for on the NHS. I think I was extremely lucky
- I was living in a borough that is known to have one of the
worst track records in terms of NHS abortions.
I only had a local anaesthetic
- by choice, I didn't feel the need to be totally put out
- so I remember the termination clearly. It is a very quick
process, a very simple operation, so I don't think there is
a need for people to have a general anaesthetic. I think they
do it because most women don't want to be conscious. It was
over in minutes. You feel slight discomfort - it's not exactly
a picnic - but in a sense it's not that much worse than a
visit to the dentist. I had a few cramps afterwards, but I
assume that was normal. My partner picked me up, and two hours
later I was home.
The feeling was relief, straight
away. I didn't want to have a child - it was the only solution.
There are a lot of women who don't want children; for those
who do, it seems a really strange concept, but for those who
don't it is totally acceptable. My life carried on. There
was no traumatic experience or psychological hang-ups or whatever.
Before I had an abortion,
I wasn't aware of the legal situation in this country. It
did shock me [that two doctors had to agree to the termination],
as I didn't feel I was able to exercise my right over my own
body. I can't say I was treated badly in any way, but it's
a time when quite a lot of woman can feel vulnerable. I've
never come across anyone who told me it was the wrong thing
to do - and, in any case, I know it was the right thing, so
it doesn't really matter