Published in Labour Worker, 28 February 1966. As far as I know this was the first article on abortion to appear in any International Socialist publication. Though I was – happily – quite wrong about what the 1967 Abortion Act would achieve, I stand by the basic argument.
Those who observe the British left are familiar with its capacity for following violently emotional indignation with completely ineffective action. A similar process can now be seen among those “progressives”campaigning for reform of the abortion laws – an issue which is only unpolitical to those who think politics has nothing to do with human misery.
In the press and parliamentary debates, we have been regaled with long horrific catalogues of cases of suffering, injury and death resulting from illegal and incompetent abortions. There is no need to report them here, but when the gruesome anecdotes are finished and practical proposals are made, the position is very different.
Lord Silkin’s Bill, which is in tune with most of the proposals for reform now being made, contains three main grounds for abortion. First, if the child is likely to be physically or mentally abnormal; second, if the pregnant woman is physically or mentally inadequate to be a mother; third, if the pregnancy arose from certain sexual offences, such as rape.
Certainly no one but a sadist could object to the legalisation of abortion in these cases. But these provisions completely leave out the great majority of cases in which abortion is desired, and sometimes, more or less dangerously, procured.
It gives no help to unmarried girls – or married women with several children. These women, victims of ignorance or shoddy contraceptives, are driven to abortion by the moral and economic pressures of our society.
The worthlessness of the reforms advocated at the moment is revealed by an article in Medical World by Professor MacGillivray, who points out that the reforms proposed by Lord Silkin and Renee Short, M.P. could, if not carefully worded, actually decrease the number of abortions permitted by law.
The arguments against abortion do not stand up to close analysis. Certainly it is a dangerous and serious operation – but so is childbirth.
In competent medical hands, abortion is less dangerous than childbirth. It is often claimed, though with very little precise evidence, that abortion has severe psychological ill-effects on women, but these largely stem from the social attitudes fostered by antiquated laws.
As for the metaphysical claim that the aborted foetus is a potential life, it should be remembered that “potential life” is destroyed, not only by abortion, but by birth control – and by sexual abstinence.
Two simple facts remain. No other surgical operation is forbidden by law, so why abortion? No one is compelled to become pregnant, so why should anyone be compelled to remain so?
The only reform socialists should demand is: abortion for any woman who wants it as part of the National Health Service.