chapter  4
26 Pages

Women and Abortion Law Reform

Women in general were on the periphery of the medical and legal debate on abortion , 1 yet for a large number of women abortion represented an important survival strategy , used when necessary to prevent the hardships that another child would bring. While their voices were marginal to the debate, women's resort to abortion was central in undermining the law . In the mid-1 930s a group of artic­ ulate middle-class women active in feminism, the birth control movement , sex reform and socialist politics, determined to bring women' s opinion in from the periphery of the abortion discussion . The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was formed to make vocal the 'opinion inarticulate in the lives of women ' . 2 Abortion , the ALRA founders believed , was a 'woman's question' and as such , women ' should have the casting vote ' . 3

In the inter-war years the campaign for birth control and the writings of the sex reformers encouraged more public discussion of the previously private issues of contraception, sexuality and venereal disease . 4 The women who founded the ALRA partici­ pated in the public debate and worked through various channels to provide birth control information and sex education . Having achieved a measure of autonomy within their own personal relation­ ships, they wished to make similar options available to other women. 5 In the course of work for the birth control cause in the 1 920s, it became clear to these activists that the class differential relating to birth control was not so much its use , as argued by the eugenists, but the method . Medically approved and fitted devices such as the cervical cap remained the prerogative of a small minority . 6 Rubber shops and mail-order services continued to

to any standards . The nice distinction, repeatedly emphasised by the birth control campaigners , between abortion and birth control went unobserved by the commercial outlets, which offered pessaries, sheaths , dutch caps and sponges in the same list as female pills, syringing powders , douche tablets and whirling sprays. 7 When coitus interruptus or a sheath proved ineffective , female pills or a douche offered a remedy . As birth control clinics collected case histories , it became clear that resort to abortion was widespread . 8

The leaders of the birth control campaign , particularly Marie Stapes, used the revelations of induced abortion to win support for their cause . 9 The medical profession emphasised that women should be taught the dangers of abortion . Doctors remained reluc­ tant , however, to sanction birth control for other than narrowly defined reasons of health . The feminists who founded the ALRA were not so reticent , claiming that safe and efficient birth control , backed up by abortion , was a necessary precondition for the full emancipation of women. They were much influenced by the example of the USSR, because of their commitment to socialism and the freedom for women that the Russian legal code seemed to imply. When both the British Communist and Labour Parties refused to make birth control or abortion part of their political platform, the ALRA founders questioned the left ' s commitment to women ' s issues . They believed that sexual reforms could not be divorced from political and social change , and if such reforms were overlooked, it was women who suffered .