(with kind permission of Abortion Review and bpas)
Interview with Madeleine Simms, Author of Abortion Law Reformed (with Keith Hindell) and founding trustee of Birth Control Trust
In about 1960 I went to a Fabian Society lecture by Gerald Gardiner QC, who later became Lord Chancellor. He outlined a list of legal issues to which he thought the next Labour Government should apply itself. He just mentioned in passing that the abortion law needed to be reformed. This was the first time I became aware that abortion was illegal. In retrospect this seems rather odd, because I was already a 30-year-old married woman with a child. It shows how hidden the subject was then, that you could actually reach that stage in life and not quite understand what the position was about abortion.
I joined the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA). The Association didn’t seem to do very much, but I joined anyway.
We were the second wave of ALRA activists. Alice Jenkins and her friends Janet Chance and Stella Browne had founded ALRA in 1936. They did a lot of educational work and held meetings and conferences, but when the war came, the whole thing went into hibernation. When I joined 25 years later, there were a lot of elderly and rather respectable people running it, with an Indian army Colonel as the chair, which was not quite what I had expected. They were restrained and discreet. They felt you could hardly mention abortion in public, you could not write letters to the press about it, nor even to MPs unless you knew them personally. But in the 1960s we younger members started writing letters all over the place and found they were often printed. We showed that you could go into the House of Commons and not only talk to MPs about the subject, but pounce on the first few names drawn in the annual Private Members’ Ballot and ask the lucky MPs to sponsor an Abortion Bill. This was new – we probably pioneered this type of lobbying. Now of course everyone does it.
I became really active when the Thalidomide tragedy occurred. I have always been particularly concerned about the prevention of handicap, and it struck me as so appalling that there were people around who were actually prepared to compel women to have handicapped babies when this could be avoided. A friend of my parents had a brain-damaged son who grew far too big for her to handle; he was quite violent. It devastated her life. Seeing this at close quarters affected me. Until people have experienced the devastating affect on their own or a friend’s life of having a handicapped child, they do not always understand what the implications are for the mother and the whole family. There is a lot of sentimental talk about the joys of a lifetime’s caring, particularly on the part of those who do not have to do it themselves. If people choose to have a baby with Down’s Syndrome, that is their right. But the notion that you have the moral right to inflict your preferences on other people who are much less able to cope is monstrous.
So Thalidomide was my original motivation, but once you become involved in a cause, other issues come into play. I became very conscious of the social injustice involved. Middle-class women in a sense needed abortion law reform least because they could always buy abortions in Harley Street and could obtain them most easily. Working-class women often in desperate need had to go to the most appalling and often self-mutilating lengths and put themselves in great danger to obtain an abortion. Alice Jenkins, one of the founders of ALRA, wrote a book Law for the Rich, which particularly drew attention to the social injustice.
Another very important motivation was my love of children, and the horror that they might be born to women who did not want them, and who might therefore resent, neglect or abuse them. Children born in these circumstances often end up in care and in the courts. The notion that the law favoured inflicting unwanted children on hostile mothers makes no sense at all. I cannot understand why anyone should support such an idea – religion has a lot to answer for.
Some of our political opponents in the 1960s really did believe that those who were in favour of having children by choice not chance disliked children. So they were quite surprised that between us we had so many. I remember being amused by this thought when I was correcting proofs of an article about abortion law reform while sitting in bed at University College Hospital awaiting the birth of my second child.
I continue to be shocked by the notion of having a child carelessly. It is too important and far-reaching a decision to be undertaken lightly. It is a lifetime’s commitment, and only to be entered into with deliberation. It’s not like choosing a holiday or making some other trivial decision. If parents have children only when they really want them, this maximises the chances of the children having happy and successful lives, and this is what matters most.
The Steel Bill was not the ideal Bill. It was too hedged around by bureaucracy and restrictions. But I thought it was probably the best compromise we could achieve in the circumstances. It was scandalous that Northern Ireland wasn’t included, as long as it continued to be part of the United Kingdom, but at the time we nearly lost Scotland too. It was only because David Steel was a Scottish MP that we did not. I was unhappy about the absence of a straight social clause, but we had to settle for what we could – in this case the ‘medico-social’ clause as it came to be called. We had to fight hard to save even that. David Steel was under enormous pressure to cut down his Bill. I greatly admire what he did and regard him as one of the great unsung heroes of the women’s movement, but he was desperate, as MPs are in these circumstances, to achieve an Act of Parliament. We knew we could not go through all this again in a hurry, so we had to ensure that we obtained a major reform, which we did.
Years later the Abortion Act seems inadequate and restrictive, however advanced it appeared in the 1960s. This is inevitable. Perspectives change over time. I don’t think the abortion decision should be up to doctors, it should be the decision of women. They are the only ones who can truly judge their social and emotional resources. It seems obvious now that abortion should be available on request at least in the first three months of pregnancy, and thereafter on serious grounds. It should be treated like any other operation, and not hedged round by special regulations, for two doctors to agree, and legal notification, and all the rest of it. At that time, of course, doctors did not want their authority taken away from them and handed to patients. They said in effect: ‘We know best’. The 1967 Act enshrines this attitude, which is my chief objection to it. On the whole doctors now recognise that they can’t know best in this particular context, though they generally do of course know best about the technical aspects of the operation, which is anyway becoming more simple all the time. Most doctors now recognise that it is not up to them to deny women birth control or abortion if that is what the women require. Of course, in the 1960s, Roman Catholic MPs and doctors were as opposed to contraception as they now are to abortion. People have forgotten that, and Roman Catholics do not much like to be reminded of this now. A series of national opinion surveys have shown that a majority of Catholic voters now support abortion law reform, even surprisingly in Northern Ireland, and this despite all the pressure on them from the Church and their politicians.
Despite my reservations, I do think the Abortion Act was an enormously important reform. It has enabled anyone who needs an abortion on grounds of serious handicap to obtain it, and there has been a huge increase in access for working-class women. There are still problems. But, yes, I do think reforming this law was a great thing to do. It was also an important international landmark which had tremendous influence in changing the abortion laws in Europe and America and throughout the developed world. I am enormously proud of having been a part of it. It is the most useful thing I have ever helped to do in my life and I am grateful to have had the chance to participate in such a campaign.
The group of people who came together in the 1960s was formidable. Getting to know them well was one of the marvellous side effects of being so closely involved in this cause. I suppose it was in the spirit of the age to some extent. Reform was in the air. We were getting rid of the last bits of Victorian baggage that were surplus to requirements – the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in our case. The whole thing could not have taken off without Vera Houghton, our chair, who was a superb co-ordinator of all our individual and slightly chaotic efforts. She was the only one of us with previous high-level political and administrative experience both in her own right and with her husband, the greatly-respected Labour MP Douglas Houghton.
I remember it primarily as a parliamentary campaign. I always loathed demonstrations, of which there were many by the 1970s, and always marched rather unwillingly, doubting how effective this form of mindless activity was. But the Catholics did it so we felt we had to as well. I preferred sitting at those round tables in the lobby of the House of Commons helping MPs to write speeches. I remember the great excitement when the Bill finally went through, having stayed up all night, then going out in the morning to find a barrow selling coffee and buns off Parliament Square.
I am a bit sad that my own children are not involved in this sort of campaign, though they and my husband have been wonderfully supportive of my activities. I feel they are really missing out on something. Making common cause with people brings very close ties. It is natural in a way that young people today are a little complacent about abortion because they have grown up taking for granted that it is legal and safe. But if you look across the Atlantic you can see how threatening it can be if you do not keep up the pressure.
The 1967 Abortion Act has helped a new generation of women plan their lives and careers in a way that very few women of my generation were able to. If you are confident that you can control your fertility you can afford to be ambitious and compete with men for the really interesting, worthwhile and powerful jobs. This is beginning to happen now and it is wonderful to witness.
I have often heard people say at meetings that the Abortion Act was the result of the women’s movement, but this isn’t so. The women’s movement did not really start until the 1970s. The 1960s campaign for abortion gave impetus to the women’s movement. It brought women together and showed that, by concentrating their efforts on a central issue, they could achieve something. I think this example encouraged women to come together on other issues too. It was a stepping stone to the whole feminist rising in the 1970s and 1980s. I hope it will continue.
Do read fascinating interviews with the other Abortion Law Reformers in this book including David Steel