What happened before the Abortion Act 1967?

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For the twelve years before the Act, abortion was the leading cause of maternal mortality in England and Wales.

Fifty one years ago, M, a 14y old schoolgirl was told that she was 8 weeks pregnant.  The woman consultant at the hospital declared that M would make a wonderful little mother and sent her home to tell her parents that they were about to become grandparents.

But, M had no intention of continuing with a pregnancy at 14y old … and like women all over the world, throughout the generations, she set about finding an illegal termination.  It wasn’t difficult.  She sourced pills from the bloke down the road who knew someone who could get them.  I don’t think he even charged her for them because like most people with any common, he didn’t think that 14y olds should be having babies that they didn’t want or feel ready to look after.

That night, she went to her friend’s house…. another 14y old… and took the pills.  Neither of them had the faintest idea what the pills were or what to expect next.  The friend’s parents went to bed … and then the pains started.

M tried not to make too much noise, moaning as quietly as she could.  The friend made hot water bottles and hot milk.  Both were terrified.

Now at this point, I could say that everything went wrong.  That M haemorrhaged and was rushed to hospital too late to save her …. But the truth is that after a few frightening hours she miscarried.  The friend’s parents accepted that M had just vomited when they questioned her being in the bath at 3am … and eventually life returned to normal for M.  None of the grown-ups ever knew.

I always think of this story when I read about pro-lifers picketing abortion clinics or the far right in the US defunding charities.  No-one can be in favour of abortion but we should all be in favour of every child being a wanted child.

M was lucky.  But the point, is that like it or not, there will always be women prepared to stop a pregnancy, regardless of risk.  Making abortion legal was, and is, the only way to keep those women safe from physical harm.

So we should celebrate that 50 years on, 14y olds in England, Wales and Scotland don’t have to make the same choice between motherhood or a potentially fatal illegal abortion.  It’s about time that women in Northern Ireland had the same choice.

Hard facts about abortion in Britain before 1967 are few. Estimates of annual numbers varied from 14,600 (the figure given by the RCOG) to 100,000 (the Home Office estimate). In 1969, the first full year of the new law, 49,829 abortions were performed on residents of England and Wales, the total rising to 108,565 in 1972.

For the twelve years before the Act, abortion was the leading cause of maternal mortality in England and Wales. The first Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths in 1952–54 reported 153 deaths from abortion, which was “procured … by the woman herself in 58 instances.” The terminal event in 50% of illegal cases was sepsis but in 25% it was air embolus from “the injection under pressure of some fluid, nearly always soapy water, into the cervix or into the vagina.” The Report commented that most of the women were “mothers of families”. After 1968 maternal deaths from illegal abortion fell slowly but did not disappear until 1982.

RCOG opinion: The Abortion Act, 40 years on