Abortion rights: learning from the mobilisations of the past

Submitted by Matthew on 25 October, 2017 - 3:30

Thirty years ago, twenty years after the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, there was a serious attempt to restrict the terms of that law. Liberal MP David Alton wanted to lower the upper limit for abortions from 28 weeks to 18.

That attempt failed but in 1990 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was used as a means to lower the legal limit to 24 weeks. This article from 1987 describes the campaign to stop Alton.

It was the last major mobilisation to defend abortion rights, which involved local groups of women activists, the left and the labour movement. The Fight Alton’s Bill (FAB) campaign followed a pattern set by opposition to the Corrie Bill in 1979, an attempt by the MP John Corrie to reduce time limit to 20 weeks. Since 2008 there have been no attempts to lower the limit (despite the best efforts of many anti-abortion MPs). But equally, apart from the recent extension of some limited rights for Northern Irish women to obtain NHS abortions (in other parts of the UK), there have been no successes at widening the scope of the legislation.

As the abortion rights come under attack around the world, as our NHS services become more rationed and migrants are excluded, is it time to revalue the reproductive rights we have and rethink the ones we want? Can we learn anything from the mass mobilisations of the past?


Six thousand women every year have an abortion after 18 weeks of pregnancy. Many of them are women who have travelled miles across Europe because they cannot get an abortion in their own country. Their sad journeys prove what the pro-choice lobby has always said — abortion cannot be banned away and women will go to great lengths to exercise control over their own bodies.

David Alton and his supporters are outraged that “foreign women” should be using British hospitals, but seem quite happy at the prospect of British women travelling across Europe or to the backstreets for an abortion the state has denied them. […] Every attempt to improve early abortion facilities has been opposed by anti-abortionists, including David Alton, who by voting against a 1981 Bill to force Health Authorities to provide abortion facilities has played his own part in increasing the numbers of late abortions.

The state is directly responsible for many late abortions. 20% of women who have an abortion later than 20 weeks after conception consulted their GP during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. They have subsequently faced delays and unsympathetic doctors who have forced them to have an abortion far later than was necessary. Teenagers make up one-half of the British women who have late abortions — victims of poor sex education and an atmosphere which makes them terrified of the response of doctors and parents. Older women who misread the signs of pregnancy for the menopause, women whose doctors misdiagnose pregnancy, and women who find they are carrying an abnormal foetus — Alton has targeted them all as sacrificial lambs in his crusade to restrict the law.

The polls show that we cannot afford to be complacent. We must build this campaign with two aims.

Firstly, we must win. Secondly, we must use this opportunity to involve women who would not normally be politically active. […] The TUC are being asked to call a march as they did in 1979 against the Corrie Bill. It is essential that the demonstration is effective and attracts as many trade unionists as possible. We need a carefully paced campaign, geared towards the labour movement, not something which is too soon and too small.

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