On this day in history : 14th July 1967 – Abortion is legalised in Britain, ending the misery of many of the illegal backstreet terminations that claimed the lives of so many women….

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ImageCreator CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout history attitude towards abortion in the Western World had been more relaxed – it was considered the foetus was part of the woman and abortion was acceptable providing it took place before ‘quickening’ started – or when the baby’s movements began to be felt (16-20 weeks)…. However, towards the end of the 18th century attitudes began to change – including in Britain….

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Art from a 13th century illuminated manuscript – featuring a herbalist preparing a concoction containing pennyroyal for a woman – Public domain

In 1803 The Ellenborough Act was brought in…. Any abortions carried out after quickening carried the death penalty…. In 1837 the Act was amended to include all abortion…. This was relaxed in 1861 with The offences Against the Person Act, which meant performing an abortion or trying to self abort carried a sentence of life imprisonment….

The Infant Life Preservation Act replaced this in 1929 – making it to crime to kill a viable foetus in all cases except when an expectant mother’s life was at risk…. However, this didn’t last for long – a succession of laws followed to eventually all but totally take away even this access to a termination….

During the 1930s MPs and women’s groups began to audibly voice concerns about the loss of life and damage to women’s health…. Between 1923-33 around 15% of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions…. This eventually led to the establishment of The Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936…. In 1938 Dr Alex Bourne was acquitted for performing an illegal abortion – this case set a precedence….and during the 1950s support for reform grew…. The contraceptive pill arrived in the 1960s (initially for married women only) and finally The Abortion Act, sponsored by David Steel MP came in 1967….coming into effect as law on the 27th of April 1968…. Abortion became legal under certain circumstances, with the approval of two doctors…. At last control over women was coming to an end….though it didn’t happen overnight – but it was a start….

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Cooperative Women Demand Legislation of Abortion, 1934 – The Wellcome Collection CC BY

Before the Act came in to force it is estimated some 100,000 women had undergone backstreet abortions – but in reality it is likely the number was much higher than this…. Other women resorted to DIY methods; drinking bleach, scalding baths, moving heavy furniture or even using a knitting needle or crochet hook on themselves…. Advertisements would appear in newspapers for cures for ‘menstrual blockages’ – but women knew these were abortion aids…. One of the most common and cheapest was for a lead based potion – which was responsible for poisoning and blinding many women…. (Below is an example of an advertisement for Beecham’s Pills from the 1880s – which discreetly claimed to be an abortion aid in the small print – I am not suggesting this was the lead based preparation previously mentioned)….

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Suggestive advertisment for the use of Beecham’s Pills as an abortion aid, 1880s…. Beecham’s (Life time : na) CC BY-SA 3.0

A network of backstreet abortionists spread across the country…. Extra staff had to be drafted in to hospital accident and emergency departments on Friday nights – as Friday, being pay-day, would be the time many women would seek out the services of the illegal abortionists…. Often performing the ‘operation’ in squalid conditions, the abortionist would usually be unskilled – although occasionally they may have had limited nursing experience – sometimes they could even be a friend or relative of the woman…. Inevitably things often went wrong and emergency medical help had to be sought…. Sometimes there was loss of life….to avoid police questioning and bringing shame on the families sympathetic doctors were known to lie on death certificates, saying the woman had died of miscarriage….

These weren’t all ‘fallen women’…. many already had large families and simply could not afford to feed another mouth…. So many women were forced to take such drastic measures….

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