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11 May 2022

From the NS archive: Abortion backlash

4 July 1969: In attempting to protect unborn children, Norman St John-Stevas and his supporters merely endanger women.

By Jane McKerron

In 1967, the Abortion Act was passed. It allowed pregnancies to be terminated on a wide number of grounds up to 28 weeks’ gestation. The act, from which Northern Ireland was exempt, was passed on a free vote but, as with Row vs Wade in the United States, the argument went on. One of the prime dissenters was the Conservative MP Norman St John-Stevas. In this piece from 1969, Jane McKerron laid out the case as to why the act, although not perfect, was a good one and why St John-Stevas’s arguments and those of the anti-abortion lobby were both medically and morally indefensible. Were the act to be amended or repealed, said McKerron, illegal abortions would increase and greater numbers of women would die seeking terminations.

The opponents of abortion law reform are remarkably bad losers. Not content with strenuous attempts to ambush the Abortion Act on its progress through parliament, almost two years later they are still sniping at it from the rear. The most recent and ominous firing has come from Mr Norman St John-Stevas, Conservative MP for Chelmsford, who plans to introduce an amending bill in the House of Commons on 15 July.

Mr St John-Stevas has coyly refrained from disclosing the exact nature of his ammunition but it will undoubtedly be of a familiar nature. He will certainly attempt to convince the House that legal abortions should be carried out only by a NHS consultant, or doctor “of similar status” approved by the secretary of state. This suggestion is an old favourite of the anti-reformers. for its effects would be immediate – and profoundly retrogressive. It would heavily reduce the numbers of abortions being carried out in the private sector by highly experienced doctors of non-consultant status, place an impossible burden on the NHS consultants in gynaecology – of whom there are only 660 – and transfer the mass of abortions back into the illegal private market.

This would obviously increase the risk of complications and financial exploitation for the patient and further stretch the resources of the health service by greatly increasing the number of emergency admissions as a result of illegal terminations. According to Sir George Godber, the chief medical officer of the Department of Health, the admission rate for such cases has nearly halved in the London area since 1966. It is also not clear who the other doctors “of similar status” are who will come to the aid of the exhausted consultants. How will they be chosen and what will they be called? The obvious title of “certified abortionists” is unlikely to appeal to those non-consultants grand enough to qualify.

The Abortion Act lays down the conditions, medical, social and psychiatric, under which a pregnancy may be legally terminated if two doctors are agreed “in good faith” that this is desirable. The anti-reform lobby appear to be continually haunted by the spectre of unscrupulous doctors twisting their faith to their financial advantage. This does, of course, occur and is unavoidable whilst the facilities for reasonably priced abortions are inadequate to meet the demand. What is more disturbing than this bending of “good faith” is the lack of it.

No wide-scale research has yet been published on this, but the evidence of one consultant psychiatrist operating privately in the West End of London indicates definite evidence of law-bending among NHS doctors. Out of 500 private abortion cases taken on by this doctor, 380 had been turned down by the NHS and were therefore forced to go to the private sector. In 90 cases, the NHS doctors, without invoking the conscience clause of the act, merely told their patients they could not help them. Nineteen Roman Catholic GPs did in fact invoke the conscience clause but refused to refer their patients to another doctor. Such action is in clear defiance of the aims of the act, as was the treatment of 102 of the cases in the sample who, despite strong GP recommendations for termination on socio-psychiatric grounds, had no adequate history taken by the gynaecologists before their applications were turned down. Such omissions also defy the recommendation of Sir John Peel, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, that in all cases of refusal doctors should justify their objections.

True opponents of the act, naturally, turn a blind eye to such malpractices. They seem more concerned with its imaginary ill-effects. Mr St John-Stevas MP confessed his fears in an emotional article in the Times last Friday and concluded that more stringent controls were necessary. His anxieties are no doubt genuine; they are also misplaced, for his case for reform is based on a series of dubious facts.

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He states that the Abortion Act is giving rise to widespread professional anxiety. As evidence he quotes a recent survey undertaken by the medical journal Pulse indicating that two in three of the doctors taking part wanted the act amended or repealed. This survey has already been referred to by National Opinion Polls as “worthless” because it was based on a response of only 15 per cent of those questioned. Mr St John-Stevas is unable to resist the fashionable allusion to London as the “abortion magnet” of the Western world. “The foreign girls coming to London to be aborted at the rate of 50 a week are a source of shame and resentment to many,” he declares. In fact, before the act was passed foreign girls came to London for illegal operations from countries with more stringent abortion regulations, and even now they amount to only between 5 and 7 per cent of the total. Yet Mr St John-Stevas and his supporters would obviously deny them their new-found legal relief.

Another fallacy quoted in the same article is that the Abortion Act has increased the abortion rate by 100 per cent, “leaving out of account the illegal abortions which undoubtedly continue”. This calculation omits the number of abortions being carried out in the private sector before the act was passed and is therefore meaningless. Another contention is that the act is not only apparently “facing the nation with an acute moral and legal crisis about the fundamental values upon which our society is based”, but also disappointing its supporters by failing to decrease the mortality rate and bring down the price of private abortions.

This concern is again misplaced. The mortality rate, which had remained static at 50 deaths a year for approximately ten years, did fall unaccountably to 34 in 1967. The 1968 figure rose again to 50, but as there were by this time three times as many legal abortions being carried out, the ratio can be said to have fallen. As to exorbitant fees, if private abortionists continue to amass small fortunes, it is largely the fault of the anti-reformers. Only when adequate facilities for free or reasonably priced abortions exist will private racketeers be forced to reduce their fees.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: Roe vs Wade: What to write when your country takes away your rights?]

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