Hot baths, gin and backstreet butchers - why we fought for legal abortion
PUBLISHED: 16:00 14 February 2018
A century on from women's suffrage, EMMA JONES talks to two veteran campaigners about a more recent victory for women's rights, and battles still to be won.
“I washed 18 shirts this morning, and hung them out to dry,” laughs 86-year-old Diane Munday.
Not words you would expect from a feminist pioneer, who played a key role in getting abortion legalised.
But Munday has never conformed to stereotypes, preferring, as she has done for five decades, to get on with the job of crusading for women’s rights. And tackling the stigma surrounding abortion – and the washing, first, of course.
“I have three sons and four grandsons. No girls,” she says.
“I don’t believe in God. But if I did, I’d think this was my punishment, for being a feminist,” she adds, with a twinkle in her eye.
In Munday’s case, her decision, when pregnant again, not to have a fourth child, was the trigger for her activism – five years before the 1967 Abortion Act was born. “I bought my life,” she says, defiantly, of what she did in the early 1960s.
“My first thoughts, afterwards, were I would fight for women who had not had the financial means to have an abortion, like I had?”
Munday’s abortion took place at a Harley Street hospital. Those who could afford it would pay doctors to do the procedure on special medical grounds. “I knew of a mother of three young children, a dressmaker, who died as a result of a backstreet abortion. When I came round from the operation all I could think of was her.”
In a week when we are celebrating 100-years since (some) women got the vote, the less celebrated story is how it took another half-century of feminist struggle to get (some) legal abortion voted on to the statute books. Munday’s contribution was crucial. After joining the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), she and fellow committee members, notably Vera Houghton, wife of Lord Houghton, a minister in the 1964 Wilson Government, galvanised support in the years up to the passing of the Abortion Act.
We speak after she has just come off stage at ‘Beyond the Backstreets’ an event celebrating 50 years of legal abortion, with fellow veteran activist Dilys Cossey, who she had interviewed for the job of secretary of ALRA years ago.
Both have witnessed all manner of tactics from anti-choice (never ‘pro-life’) activists: from crying babies, deliberately brought in to disrupt meetings, having her car covered in blood-red paint and nuisance callers repeating the word ‘mummy’ down the phone.
Since the Abortion Act became law in April 1968, almost seven million women have benefited from safe, legal abortion in Britain.
Before that, the Home Office estimated annually 100,000 women were forced into unsafe illegal abortions. The Royal College of Obstericians and Gynaecologists estimate the figure was 14,600.
Abortionists were often coerced into carrying-out unlawful operations. Friends and families, of women with unwanted pregnancies, threatened to expose backstreet practitioners to the police, if they refused to help.
Fearful, the women often lied about how far gone they were, which lead to disaster.
It was routine for those who underwent half-finished abortions to end-up in hospital. Cossey remembers: “The illegal abortions that had been started off.. the junior doctors had to go in and scrape out the womb. It was not recorded as abortion – it was recorded as a miscarriage or uterine evacuation.”
Today, it is difficult to obtain accurate information about the numbers of women who died as a result. Munday recalls: “Certainly, amongst the women who died, the doctors were sympathetic and they rarely called the police. The records were analysed by a pathologist and they calculated only one in fifty that were suspected as being abortion-related and were registered as such. It was just a fact of life for that generation of doctors.
“One of the problems now is that nobody sees the effects of illegal abortions.” she adds, explaining how recent campaigns for liberal reform have been difficult to mobilise widespread support for.
Cossey reflects: “Back then having sex with your boyfriend was a risky business. I remember sitting in a hot bath swigging gin because my period was late. Didn’t make a bit of difference, but you thought you were doing something.
“And the only real way to do it was to open the cervix, so that the pregnancy was disrupted and that’s what coat hangers did. There was also something called ‘slippery elm’ and women in South Wales used wax tapers.”
Munday adds: “Certainly in working class areas, every tenement block had its own Knitting Needle Nora. The film Vera Drake was exactly as it was back then. The family didn’t know, the husband didn’t know.”
So what do the hard-core campaigners think of the new the #MeToo sexual harassment debate?
“Ideas are important to influence MPs because they feel the zeitgeist. We need a #MeToo-type phrase, because that’s part of how we will build a mass campaign on the net.” A grey-haired grandmother is educating this reporter less than half her age in a streetfood café in Shoreditch, while tucking into a chaat bite curry.
For Munday and Cossey, and other modern-day campaigners, the legacy of the 1967 Act leaves us needing further reform: decriminalising abortion entirely so it is regulated by professional medical ethics like all other procedures, allowing the abortion pill to be used at home for early terminations, and enabling trained nurses to carry out procedures.
All these measures were last tried in 2009 but Gordon Brown’s government, and specifically Harriet Harman, blocked the amendments from even getting a vote. Ironically, a weak Tory Government may be a better mid-wife for abortion law reform than a ‘strong’ Labour one.
There is now a new initiative for reform, led by MPs like Stella Creasy and encouraged by the campaign in Ireland where, if a referendum to be held on the issue is won, they may have more liberal laws than Great Britain. We cannot talk of the UK, because Northern Ireland, untouched by 1967, remains a reservoir of misery for those with unwanted pregnancies.
What is needed, says Cossey, is “a mass campaign of ordinary women”. “One in three women, she adds, in reference to the ratio of how many women will have an abortion by the age of 45.
Do Munday and Cossey think that the Weinstein revelations were a catalyst for feminism, which might help de-stigmatise abortion and aide their campaign?
“It’s good, it’s happening but you have got to change men” says Cossey.
“When you look at the reason people like Weinstein behave, it is power. If women were equally powerful, even they might do the same thing.
“History never repeats itself, but you can learn lessons from what has gone on before. I think people need to take a good hard look at what has gone on in the past and apply it to today.” Cossey continues: “Lobbying is key too. Quieter lobbying, tailored to MPs on both sides, looking for a strategy. It is parliamentary tactics, and that is what you have got to get into, when you are working with abortion.”
“‘I’m very happy for demonstrations to go on,” Munday chips in, “as long as the proper political work is done as well.”
The political ascent of avowedly anti-abortion MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is helping to focus attention on the issue at a parliamentary level – something Cossey and Munday think is crucial to their campaign. “It is a question of conscience,” Cossey says. “If you scratch an MP, you’ll find someone who is, on the whole, fairly sophisticated – however revolting their public profile is.
“They will all have experiences in their family by now – sister, wife, mother, daughter – who will have had a termination, and that affects people. I remember there was a Tory MP, whose daughter had a late abortion, and she sat him down, and told him ‘don’t vote against this bill’.”
So is the key to raise boys as feminists? “I think there’s a long way to go on that,” Cossey says.
Certainly, Munday’s own experience of raising sons and confronting abortion issues, hasn’t been straightforward.
“One of my sons wouldn’t be seen dead at a thing like this (referring to the Abortion Rights’ event we were meeting at). He is bitterly ashamed of me. He walked out the room whenever programmes with me came on the television.”
What’s the secret of their success as campaigners? “Pioneers are difficult people. Pioneering women are the most difficult of them all”, they declare in unison.