chapter  5
28 Pages

An Official Investigation: The Birkett Committee

The official response to pressure both inside and outside Parliament for action on the abortion issue was a joint Home Office-Ministry of Health Inquiry . The Inquiry resulted directly from the 1937 Report on Maternal Mortality which recommended further study of various subjects, including 'abortion with special reference to the influence which it may exert on maternal mortality and morbidity and future childbearing' . An investigation into maternal deaths from 1923-33 found that 1 5 per cent of maternal deaths were due to abor­ tion . 1 The appointment of a Committee of Inquiry offered an attempt at a solution while not directly antagonising any sections of the community which might have moral or religious objections to abortion . However, both the terms of the Inquiry and the com­ position of the Committee limited its perception of the abortion problem. Abortion was essentially a method of birth control used by women after conception in the absence of cheap and reliable methods that could be used before conception . The Birkett Com­ mittee was to consider abortion as a medical and legal problem . Its brief was :

to inquire into the prevalence of abortion and the present law relating thereto and to consider what steps can be taken by more effective enforcement of the law or otherwise to secure the reduction of maternal mortality and morbidity arising from this cause . 2

The answers it sought , therefore , whether more effective law enforcement or better treatment for spontaneous abortion , ignored

. In their submissions to the Committee, secular women' s groups

stressed that women would no longer be subject to unrestricted childbearing. The Committee, composed of ten professional men and five women (two of whom were doctors , and four were titled) , was distanced by gender and class from the problems of close­ interval pregnancies , poor housing, minimal budgets , and unemployment described by working-class women. Its recommend­ ations were shaped more by the evidence of their colleagues , pro­ fessionals in medicine and law. Before formulating their Report the Committee took evidence from 55 witnesses . It is this evidence , rather than the Report itself, which provides an invaluable record of the cross-currents of opinion on abortion in the 1930s.