The Socialist Unity Network

Defend the 67 abortion act

For a woman's right to choose

Terry Conway is a member of Socialist Resistance

The last private members bill which sought to further restrict women's limited rights to abortion was in 1987 when Liberal MP David Alton unsuccessfully tried to introduce a restrictive private members bill which would have criminalised all abortions over eighteen weeks. Unfortunately events over the summer suggest that the next attempt at doing something similar might be all too uncomfortably close.

The bedrock of current abortion legislation is the 1967 Abortion Act that was successfully introduced by Liberal MP David Steele. Despite all the problems with the 67 Act (see box), it was an enormous step forward for women’s rights. Backstreet abortions which had resulted in the painful death from septicaemia of thousands upon thousands of women was massively reduced. Between 1967 and 1975 the number of back street abortions fell by 75 per cent.  “No return to the backstreets was the heartfelt chant of every pro-choice mobilisation.

The 67 Abortion Act, together with the 1966? Equal Pay Act were a key to the rise of the second wave of feminism in Britain. Women having more economic independence and the beginnings of the right to control their fertility were the twin pillars on which the Women's Liberation movement grew in the late 1960s and early 70s. For several generations of feminists and in particular for the strong socialist feminist current, the fight to defend and extend abortion rights was absolutely centre stage of our political radicalisation and activity.

At the beginning of July 2004, David Steele stated that he now believes the time limit for abortions should be reduced. In 1967 the upper limit was 28 weeks and in 1990 this was reduced to 24 weeks after Tory MP Geoffrey Howe successfully moved an amendment to the Act. These time limits were always tied to the notion of foetal viability – an unacceptable and dangerous approach.

Accepting viability argument plays into the hands of powerful organisations such as SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) and Life, with massive funding and organisational support from the Roman  Catholic Church and other religious groups. As a Socialist Outlook pamphlet written in 1987 in the wake of the Alton Bill explained: “To argue that abortion is allowable only until “viability” is reached is to concede there are certain acceptable grounds for abortion and limits of women’s choice, that women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions”.  The anti-abortionists have been particularly manipulative of issues of disability rights. Earlier this year for example they supported Johana Jepson’s attempt to have the doctor’s who permitted a having abortion supposedly because the foetus had a cleft palate. No one else can know the reality of that woman’s situation. Certainly what is really abhorrent is that women should be forced by the law to give a reason for wanting an abortion. It should be our right to decide.

No woman wants to have a late abortion but there are many reasons why it happens. I know – because I ended up having an abortion at 22 weeks. It is extremely difficult now to get an abortion after 20 weeks because there is a four-week margin of error for dates. Women approaching the menopause for example often have irregular cycles and end up being 3 or 4 months pregnant without noticing. Some young women don’t realise they are pregnant because of poor or non-existent sex education. Britain has the highest level of teen-age pregnancy in the developed world.

The National Abortion Campaign (NAC) was launched in 1975 to oppose the first private members Bill that sought to further restrict women’s rights, introduced by James White, a Labour MP for Glasgow. Other attacks followed – in 1977 the Benyon Bill and in 1979 the Corrie Bill. By this time the campaign had built up such support that we were able to get the TUC to call a massive demonstration in opposition to the Corrie Bill. During this period virtually every trade union in Britain (with the exception of unions such as the National Union of Teachers which have restrictive rules preventing them even debating “political” topics such as abortion) were won to support for a woman’s right to choose.

What’s wrong with abortion provision today

The time limit for late abortions is set on the basis of “viability” – see main article

Women have to give a reason why they do not want to proceed with the pregnancy.

A woman needs the permission of two doctors – to decide what to do with her own body and her own life. Doctors can and do sometimes refuse to sign. Women may also be afraid this will happen and therefore not go. For young women in particular there is also the fear their confidentiality will be breached as there is around other issues of sexuality and sexual health.

It is very hard to get an abortion on the NHS in some parts of the country because the facilities don’t exist. Countless surveys have shown consistently that there was a post-code lottery for abortion facilities in the days when this was not generally the case for other aspects of welfare provision.  If you have the money you can go to a charity – and if you don’t then you may be stuck with an unwanted pregnancy

A lot of work was also done within the Labour Party, especially in the then relatively strong Women’s Sections. However even at the height of the National Abortion Campaign, which coincided to some extent with the development of the Bennite left who were largely supportive of the issue,  it was not possible to impose a whip on the issue.  The Parliamentary Labour Party maintained a scurrilous position throughout that this was an issue of conscience on which MPs had to be allowed to vote as they individually saw fit – regardless of how many women died as a consequence.

But although NAC tried in between attacks to fight to improve the existing situation both in terms of NHS provision and the law we didn’t succeed in galvanising the same level of support.  At the end of last year NAC decided to merge with the pre-existing Abortion Law Reform Association and become Abortion Rights.

Steele’s article in the Guardian (July 6) talks about reducing the upper limit to 22 weeks, though he was quoted indirectly in The Guardian (July 5) as being in favour of reducing the limit to 12 weeks – which would obviously be even more devastating. Women’s Voice, the women's paper of the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) calculated in 1975 that if the limit was reduced to 18 weeks 80,000 women would loose their legal right to abortion.

Tony Blair initially responded to questions in the house by saying that
the government would look at the new scientific evidence and then decide
how to proceed. There was obviously some vigorous pro-choice lobbying because the following week a junior health minister was put up to argue that the
private members ballot was the proper route for this debate.

Abortion Rights together with a number of other pro-choice organisations and individuals are meeting in London in mid-September to discuss how to mobilise against the attacks that may come over the months ahead.

The ballot for the private members ballot will take place in late October or early November, but given the length of time it has been since this debate was had in many parts of the left and Labour movement it is essential the preparatory work starts now. Hopefully meetings will take place in Scotland, Wales and other parts  of England in the next month or so too.



For further information contact



August 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism