Abortion is legalised in Britain

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Abortion is legalised in Britain

The 27th of April 1968 AD

The young Liberal MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, David Steel , in 1967 drew third place in the annual ballot for private members’ bills. He courageously agreed to requests from women’s groups and others to sponsor a bill to clarify existing abortion law, and to make abortion in some cases legal in Britain. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill was an important point in British legal and medical history.

In the 19th century the Ellenborough Act made abortion a crime punishable by death, a position only slightly weakened in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, where performing an abortion or self-aborting were made punishable by life imprisonment.

In spite of this legal standpoint women continued to seek abortions. Economic circumstances, rape, social stigma at pregnancy out of wedlock, the reasons for women wanting to terminate pregnancies were many. Back street abortions cost many women their lives. Patent “menstrual blockage” cures – that in some cases proved to be deadly poisons – were openly sold.

In 1936 the Abortion Law Reform Association was formed to address the serious problems. Landmark cases only made matters more confusing, cases such as that of Dr Alex Bourne, who admitted performing an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had become pregnant when she was gang raped, and was found not guilty as her life was in danger in the court’s view. Inequitably social position had a bearing on abortion too, with the better-off able to pay a psychiatrist to approve an abortion for them.

David Steel’s bill became The Abortion Act 1967 , which was enacted on April 27 1968. He was supported by the Labour Government, perhaps happy to have a figure from outside its ranks to promote a controversial cause. The bill faced fierce resistance from religious groups in particular, and the issue has remained massively controversial ever since, with sadly many protagonists from both sides – “pro-life” (anti-abortion) and their “pro-choice” opponents too often claiming that the issue is a simple one, and all right rests with their particular view. It is not a simple argument or case: it is too often complex, difficult, tragic, unclear and divisive.

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