September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Abortion – how it became a culture war issue

7 min read
From the 1960s to the 1990s, abortion became a culture war issue that is hugely divisive down to the present day as TV historian Tony McMahon reports

The 1967 Abortion Act in the United Kingdom allowed women to legally terminate a pregnancy on the National Health Service. It remained prohibited in Northern Ireland until 2019. This legislation was one of a raft of liberal-minded laws in that decade legalising homosexuality, for example, and abolishing capital punishment. But over the next quarter of a century, the opponents never gave up trying to undermine the Abortion Act. Since the 1990s, it has become a key ‘culture war’ issue.

Catholic church kicks off the culture war on abortion

In the same year the Abortion Act came into force, a pressure group called the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was established. Throughout the 1970s, SPUC featured prominently in The Universe – a tabloid Catholic newspaper for British and Irish Catholics. SPUC denied being connected to the Roman Catholic church and claimed its founders were non-Catholics. But reading The Universe as a teenager, the two seemed to ride in harness.

My father was Irish and my mother was Portuguese and we were ‘cultural’ Catholics. My mother, as a nurse, was pro-abortion and pro-contraception and had no time for strident anti-abortionists. But it was hard to avoid the constant anti-abortion propaganda that sprayed out of every church pulpit and right up to the Vatican.

Catholic countries like Ireland prided themselves on their anti-abortion stance. The Irish parliament only legalised abortion in 2018.

Some had hoped after the reforming papacy of John XIII (reigned 1958-1963), that his successor Pope Paul VI would signal a more tolerant attitude to abortion. But any hopes of that were dashed by a papal encyclical in 1968, Humanae Vitae, which took a hardline position on abortion, sterilisation, and even the contraceptive pill.

Sex was for procreation only – full stop.

This stunned Catholics around the world. In the United States, a 1965 survey found that half of Catholic women were using contraception. To suddenly be told that all artificial birth control was a sin forced millions of Catholics to become sinful. If the Vatican thought this declaration on abortion would strengthen its authority among the faithful – the impact was the opposite.

For the first time, many Catholics decided on a ‘cafeteria’ approach to their faith. They would pick and choose which papal edicts to follow.

Background to the 1967 Act

Legalising abortion in the United Kingdom was part of a long process of struggle by women’s rights campaigners.

In 1938, a jury acquitted a gynaecologist who carried out an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a group of soldiers. This established the principle that where a doctor carried out an abortion to protect a woman’s mental or physical health, then they ought to be in the clear.

There was also a growing assumption, more controversial today, that if the baby was likely to be severely handicapped, then this was strong grounds for an abortion to protect the woman’s mental wellbeing. In fact, the Abortion Act made an exception for very late termination if the baby was found to have a condition like Down Syndrome. That has been contested by disability campaigners over the last year.

Before 1967, doctors felt they were at risk of prosecution with dire consequences whatever the grounds for termination. They wanted clarity and protection. The right to make a balanced clinical decision without fear of being arrested.

The provisions of the 1967 were worded in a deliberately vague way to give doctors more discretion. And the procedure had to be carried out in a hospital. There were to be no abortions performed in GP surgeries or other settings. A hospital gynaecologist would review the case and green light it. Most importantly, there had to be a hospital bed free. No bed, no abortion. There was to be no waiting list.

No piece of legislation is perfectly worded and the 1967 Abortion Act could have been framed better. But, it established the principle that abortion was now legal. This would unleash decades of amending bills designed primarily to chip away at a woman’s right to choose.

Culture war attacks on abortion – the 1970s

In 1979, as a radical teenager, I was up for joining any protest going. So myself and a friend – aged 16 – went on a feminist demonstration against the so-called “Corrie Bill”. This was one of several attempts over the years to restrict abortion by degrees. It elicited a furious response from women’s groups, the Trades Union Congress, and the National Abortion Campaign (NAC). My buddy and I ended up being photographed and featured, favourably, in the radical feminist magazine, Spare Rib.

Although this attempt to curb abortion was put forward as a private member’s bill – it won the support of the newly elected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. This was a clearly a culture war signal to her base that these liberal reforms of the 1960s were being scheduled for demolition.

But MPs split in unexpected ways. So, in favour of the Corrie Bill was Leo Abse MP who had been a campaigner for divorce and homosexual rights but on abortion was a hardliner. The former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson also was in favour. Against them were left-wing Labour MPs but also…right-wing maverick, Enoch Powell MP. In the end, Corrie withdrew his bill as it became clear parliament was not going to vote it through.

Culture war attacks on abortion – the 1980s

Twenty years after the passing of the Abortion Act and the Liberal MP for Liverpool Mossley Hill, David Alton, tried to reduce the time limit for abortions from 28 weeks down to 18 weeks with his Abortion Amendment Bill. Thatcher, still Prime Minister, was believed to be sympathetic to a 24-week limit.

Anti-abortionists knew they had an ally in Thatcher even though votes on the issue were not subject to party ‘whipping’ (discipline) and bills were introduced by private members, not advanced by the government. But Thatcher was onside. How she ever came to be characterised as a feminist champion – something she denied vehemently herself – is a mystery to me.

DISCOVER: Thatcher was not a feminist

The NAC launched a campaign, FAB – Fight the Alton Bill. In January 1988, there were demonstrations around the UK and only one in favour. The anarchist pop band Chumbawamba released a single: Smash Clause 28! Fight the Alton Bill!

Clause 28, in case you’re unaware, was the anti-LGBT legislation passed by the Thatcher government prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. Again, how Thatcher is perceived in some quarters as a gay icon is another mystery to me.

Conservatives were more supportive of the Alton Bill but many Labour MPs were Roman Catholic and even on the left of the party, Catholic MPs like Ronnie Campbell wanted to support Alton. Campbell, incidentally, went on to vote against same-sex marriage in 2013.

Interestingly, while the Alton Bill was being pushed through parliament, there was a reported surge in the number of Irish women coming across to the UK seeking a late abortion. In January 1987, the Irish High Court in Dublin had toughened the line on abortion ruling that it was illegal for clinics in Ireland to refer women to services in the UK for abortions. In the end, Alton’s Bill was killed by a filibuster. Opposing MPs talked it out of existence leaving no time for a vote.

Culture war on abortion into the 1990s

Up until the 1990s, it was still possible for there to be a debate – no matter how acrimonious – on the issue of abortion. But it was this decade that saw entrenched positions taken on abortion, LGBT rights and issues like public funding for the arts and the term ‘culture war‘ was popularised in the United States. This described a new polarisation, and new alliances, around questions like abortion.

In 1992, James Davison Hunter authored the book, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America. It described how Christian fundamentalists, orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics were coalescing into a coalition to take control of American culture from secular forces. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the debate around capitalism versus communism ceasing to be so central – other issues had to define Right versus Left. Step forward abortion.

The propaganda, language, and tactics became more violent. In the United States, this eventually led to fatal shootings at abortion clinics. Gynaecologist David Gunn was shot dead in 1993 after ‘Wanted’ posters had appeared in the locality. In 1994, there were two separate murderous rampages at clinics with John Salvi killing two receptionists at different clinics. He later committed suicide in prison.

In the United Kingdom, pro-Life (as they called themselves) groups made increasingly lurid claims about babies being ‘culled’ in the womb and foetuses that could talk. Husbands seeking to stop their wives having terminations became a press favourite. One court case failed when it emerged the husband had a previous conviction for assaulting his wife. In 1997, an appeals court in Scotland ruled that if a woman wanted an abortion, under the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act, the foetus had no right to a continued existence.

SPUC set up a helpline for “British victims of abortion”. And on the anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act, tried to organised “pro-Life chains” of protestors at various locations around the UK. Personally, I don’t recall seeing any of these chains materialise.

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