Abortion: No return to the bad old days

Posted on 28 January 2012


Tuesday 24 January 2012
by Louise Raw

The decision by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) to allow ads for post-conception advice services has the usual suspects in a lather.

It’s no use in wearily pointing out that pregnancy advice agencies actually give counselling, rather than automatic compulsory abortions to anyone who walks through their doors, nor that the non-profit ones have long advertised without obviously bringing about the apocalypse.

Shock caused the Daily Mail to turn not only apoplectic but also prescient – the decision “will trigger a storm of controversy,” the paper claimed hopefully.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was, equally predictably, not best pleased either.

SPUC not only refuses to recognise the possibility of being literally pro-choice, but also sees anti-baby conspiracy everywhere.

According to its press statement, the BCAP is pro-abortion, the Royal College of Obstetricians is pro-abortion and even the entire Department of Health is … oh, you guessed.

Who knew there could be such impressive ideological uniformity in large and diverse organisations?

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, SPUC was very visible back in the ’80s and ’90s. These were the chaps – and they usually were chaps – at demos waving plastic foetuses around and sneaking motions onto trade union women’s conferences agendas under the guise of concern for women’s health.

This or that drug, they’d claim, was terribly bad for the ladies. Oh, really? Also used in abortions, you say?

Back then, the threat to choice by groups like these, and successive Tory governments, was only too clear.

But the issue has by no means gone away.

SPUC has managed to make some headway recently opposing sex education – which is really rather confusing if you think about it. Soft on pregnancy, tough on the causes of pregnancy?

The Safe in Schools campaign is a SPUC front and has managed to get into some schools to give compulsory talks to pupils.

The campaign popped up on the BBC only last summer, with both its spokeswoman Antonia Tully and the Beeb forgetting to mention the SPUC connection.

Tully was vehement on the subject of Living and Growing, a DVD used in science lessons which included a very benign image of one cartoon character on top of another – no animated bits on display – which Tully thought were “graphic scenes of sexual intercourse.”

The poor woman’s going to freak when she discovers the internet.

Meanwhile MP Nadine Dorries – Nadine! Where have you been? – said: “What this is actually going to do is desensitise what abortion is and the seriousness of it, and making it sound like it’s as easy as having your lunch.

“That may be great for articulate, well-educated women who know exactly what they want, but the more vulnerable woman who is in emotional turmoil is going to be badly damaged.”

How quaint that Dorries uses “articulate and well-educated” as code for “middle-class” and is concerned that abortion will not be “great” for the poor confused working classes.

Perhaps we should introduce a property qualification for pregnancy counselling, like they used to have for the female vote?

And indeed why not bring that back while we’re at it?

“Broadcasters will be making profit through advertising revenue … it’s appalling,” Dorries concluded.

Yes, isn’t capitalism beastly? The poor old Tories do seem to have an equivocal relationship with the big C these days, given that it’s essentially their whole thing – just look at Dave Cameron’s eye-watering contortions on the subject.

The Christian charity Care was on side with this, banging on about abortions being advertised “along with toothpaste and breakfast cereal” and moaning about consumerisation in the vague way the church does, as long as those who really oppose it are not on their doorstep in tents.

Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship took a different tack, though, dragging our old friend post-abortion stress syndrome out of the woodwork.

“Having an abortion is a deeply traumatic experience that can lead to further medical and physiological complications. A 30-second advert is not the place to discuss and promote this medical procedure.”

This made me quite teary-eyed with nostalgia, as the first speech I ever gave at a trade union conference, when a mere slip of a lass, was on this very issue.

Since then, the concept of post-abortion stress syndrome has been discredited by study after study, but Saunders was commendable in his determination not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Let’s not forget what the anti-choice lobby really wants, which is an end to legal abortion.

History clearly shows us that denying access to safe abortions does not make “every child a wanted child” but drives women to desperate measures.

Those horrible old stories about coat-hangers are based on absolute fact, and a tremendous loss of life.

From 1923-33, 15 per cent of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortion.

Most women knew, or knew of, others who had died self-aborting, of septicaemia and other complications.

Such was the concern that Parliament acknowledged: “A high percentage of maternal mortality is due to attempted abortion … We, as a House of Commons and as a nation, must face up to that fact today.”

The Abortion Law Reform Association was established in 1936.

Two years later, a doctor was acquitted of performing an illegal abortion in a landmark case.

Alex Bourne admitted performing the operation for a 14-year-old girl who had been gang-raped and was suicidal.

As a result of the ruling, abortions began to be allowed in extreme circumstances, but a psychiatrist’s approval was needed and only the relatively wealthy could both find and pay for one who would support their case.

By 1939 the situation was still so unclear that the government had to establish a committee to clarify whether or not doctors could legally carry out abortions in order to save a woman’s life.

The outbreak of war interrupted their investigations and it was not until 1967 was the Abortion Act finally passed, still only allowing the procedure under certain prescribed conditions.

Since 1967 the Act has been repeatedly challenged several times by anti-choice organisations.

Labour MP James White’s attempt to overturn it by private member’s Bill in 1974 was sponsored by one such group.

Women’s groups organised counter-demonstrations, brandishing wire coat-hangers to symbolise the horrors of back-street abortion.

The furore over the BACP decision shows that attacks on women’s right to choice are by no means a thing of the past. We must be vigilant if we are not to return to the very bad old days.

Louise Raw is the author of Striking A Light (Continuum) about the Bryant & May matchwomen’s strike.