How Abortion Law Should Change, According To The Woman Who Campaigned To Make It Legal In The First Place

in 1961 Diane Munday had an illegal abortion, she then made it her life's work to fight for abortion rights

abortion waiting times

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

If you were born after 1967 you will never have known a time in Britain when abortion was illegal because this was the year that the Abortion Act came into force (unless, of course, you happen to have been born in Northern Ireland). This means that you’ve never not had the right to make decisions about your body and future. It means that the option of obtaining a free, safe and legal abortion has always been yours as long as you are within the statutory time limit of 24 weeks.

It wasn’t always like this. I was born in 1988 in England and, until recently, I’d never really thought about the freedom afforded to me by the women who fought to make sure I had these fundamental rights.

**WATCH NOW: The Debrief Meets Diane Munday, 1960s Abortion Rights Campaigner **

In 1961 Diane Munday, now in her 80s, had an illegal abortion. At this time a pregnant woman caught having an abortion or trying to procure one and anyone who aided her in doing so could go to prison. She was around 30, happily married and she had just discovered that she was pregnant with her fourth child in four years. ‘I just knew I could not have that child’ she tells me but, at this point in time, abortion was ‘never ever talked about’ she says, ‘the word abortion was not spoken, it was not written.’

In many ways Diane was fortunate. She was able to pay for a Harley Street abortion which cost £150, factoring inflation that’s over £2,000 today. As she was coming round from the anaesthetic she recalls how her privilege hit her. ‘I bought an abortion’ she says, that’s how she puts it, it was transactional. She had money so she was, relatively speaking, safe. On waking up, however, she recalls being ‘appalled’ because she remembered an acquaintance, a young woman her family had known only a few years earlier. ‘Like me’ Diane says ‘she was happily married, had three children but, unlike me, she had died from a backstreet abortion. But, because I knew where to go in London because I could raise enough money to pay what was an exorbitant amount for the operation I was alive. My husband had a wife, my three children had a mother. This other young woman was dead, leaving a widow and three motherless children.’

That was it for Diane, perhaps it sounds hackneyed to say because everyone’s an ‘activist’ now, but her lifelong campaign for abortion rights began there and then, and the reasoning is far from cliché. Why? Because then (as now in Northern Ireland) the situation was, quite literally, life and death. ‘I decided immediately after my operation…when I realised I was alive that I would spend the rest of my life if necessary campaigning for other women to be able to have safe and legal abortions.’ It was after this experience that Diane became one of the leading figures in the Abortion Reform Law Association (ARLA).

Trying to interview Diane about her work is not easy. She is, understandably, tired of being asked the same questions on a loop by various journalists and broadcasters and isn’t afraid to let me know this. She doesn't want to go over the abuse she received as a campaigner for the 100th time (the red paint that was splattered across her car, which she was told symbolised the blood of children she had murdered). So, what would she like to talk about, I ask? ‘I just wish the media would come up with a new angle. Controversy keeps the press occupied, why do so many journalists still feel they have to interview an anti-abortion person? Abortion is legal!’ she says, genuinely exasperatedly. What does she think that new angle is, I ask? ** **

In a nutshell, despite her frustrations, this elusive angle is clearly the reason that Diane is still giving interviews about the well-documented events of the 1960s. It’s fitting that I’m meeting her, in her St Alban’s home where she lives with her grandson (who is about to turn thirty this weekend) not only in the same week that marks 50 years of legal abortion in Britain but in the same week that I have sat in the press gallery at the Supreme Court to observe a hearing about abortion rights and women’s human rights in Northern Ireland, with the likes of Amnesty International, the Family Planning Association and Humanists UK intervening on behalf of women in Northern Ireland. ** **

Diane is still here, still talking and still telling the same story because, in her view, the 1967 Act didn’t go far enough. This is a view which is increasingly shared by others including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Lesley Regan of the Royal Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and, more recently, NHS Scotland.

‘From the day we passed the act’ Diane says ‘I have thought there was still work to be done. When we celebrated after the all-night sitting in the house of commons [in which the law was passed] on the terrace with strawberries and champagne…I said it wasn’t a complete celebration…I said then “I’m only drinking half a glass of champagne” because the job is only half done. I was never satisfied with what we achieved, it was a compromise but it was the best that could be achieved at that time. It was that or nothing but I was very very unhappy at the time and still am, specifically with two clauses of the Act which now needs to be ditched completely. Times have changed. Women’s roles have changed. Medicine has changed.’

The problems with the 1967 Abortion Act are glaringly obvious. Firstly, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act was not altered so, technically, abortion remained and remains to this day a criminal offence. The 1967 Act only made exemptions to the 1861 Act and, in any case, it was restrictive. It decreed that two doctors had to sign off on a woman’s request for an abortion which, to this day, is not true of any other medical procedure. The Act did not extend to Northern Ireland which means that the fortunes of women there are still tied to how much money they have available to them, just as they were for Diane’s generation. And, the Act stipulated that abortions could only take place in specified locations – doctors surgeries, hospitals, clinics. As technology has advanced and medical abortions which consists only of taking two pills have become the norm, this seems both draconian and archaic. Indeed, as The Debrief’sFOI investigation into abortion waiting times has revealed, these restrictions are actively creating barriers which are preventing women from accessing timely medical treatment. ** **

I sit, sinking into Diane’s leather sofa and admiring both her succulent and mid-century modern furniture collection which her grandsons are ‘embarrassed by’ as the news breaks. NHS Scotland has announced that, with immediate effect, women in Scotland will no longer have to take pills at specified premises to induce a medical abortion. From here on in women will be able to take the pills home. ‘That is an admission that the 1967 is inadequate and not fit for purpose in 2017’ Diane says ‘and that is an admission by the government of one of the countries in the UK. This is a huge step forward politically, to me, it has broken a taboo. It says that the Abortion Act is getting in the way of women having a safe and comfortable as it can ever be abortion. It’s got to be a turning point…a huge moment. I think we’ve moved forward more in the last three months than we have in the last 30 years. We’ve had Ealing Council ban protestors outside clinics, BPAS and the RCOG call for change and now this.’

When I was at school, I tell Diane, one of my closest friends needed an abortion. She had found she was pregnant early on, and so she could have a medical abortion which involved pills and not surgery. However, where we lived, just beyond where South London and Zone 6 give way to green belt suburbia, there was nowhere that she was allowed to be prescribed the pills needed to end her unwanted pregnancy. My friend was forced to travel 35 minutes into London to a clinic where she had to take the pills under observation. From there, she travelled home on a Southern train while her induced miscarriage began.

‘That is what has to end’ said Diane in response, visibly outraged. ‘Women have to go to a hospital or a clinic to take the pill and then they have the abortion on the pavement, in a taxi or the train home…what good is that for women’s health??! We need to stop abortion being a criminal offence and make it a medical matter. Hospitals and surgeries for people who still need surgical abortions should be controlled by the same rules and regulations that control any other procedure…like having your appendix out.’

Abortions are common. Women in Britain have voted for abortion in the most obvious way they could, with their feet. 1 in 3 women will walk into an abortion clinic at some point in their lives, so why are they so restricted? The answer is that the legislation which governs how abortion services can be provided in this country contain inherent social, moral and religious value judgements which speak to the period in which the law was written. If a woman today has an abortion under conditions which are not set out in the Act i.e. at home as a result of ordering pills online she could still technically find herself in prison. ‘It’s 2017’ Diane says ‘that is a nonsense.’

The Supreme Court hearing finished this week with the first ever woman judge, Lady Hale, sitting on the bench. A symbol of some progress at least. However, outside, self-appointed ‘pro-life protestors’ flanked the court’s doorway throughout the trial. I asked them why there were there when I left ‘we’re staging a silent witness to this case and here to protest Northern Ireland’s right to keep their laws the same’ a middle-aged woman among them told me. Yet, they do not represent Northern Ireland, polls show that most people there are in favour of liberalising abortion laws. This, in many ways, is a perfect metaphor for the conversation when it comes to abortion rights in Britain more broadly. We hear from those who loudly and visibly oppose abortion, they are the so-called protestors who stand outside our courts and conferences for days on end. They are the people who harass women as they enter abortion clinics. They are MPs like Jacob Rees Mogg who say that abortion is a ‘sin’ and want to cut the abortion limit by ‘as many weeks as possible’. But we do not hear from the women whose lives, health and futures depend on abortion being available. We do not hear from the anonymous women whose testimonies were read in the Supreme Court this week. We do not hear from the women who order pills online to their homes in Northern Ireland because they cannot afford to travel and we do not often hear from women in Britain who have suffered unnecessary journeys home from surgeries and clinics while they cramp and bleed.

Does Diane have a message for women today? We must 'recognise that our rights are still under threat', she says, 'women who have benefited from having abortions do not write to their MP and say "I have benefited from this law" but those who are against abortions write in their thousands, they stand outside parliament and they stand outside our courts. Young women have to make their voices heard.'

The main barrier to reform, as Diane sees it is the fact that politics is still made up of conservative (with a small c) elderly males and they don’t wish to deal with it'. The anti-abortion lobby, she says, remains 'extreme and strong. I mean, just this week, the conference at the Royal College of Gynaecologists had demonstrators on their doorstep handing out leaflets one of which said abortion is dangerous, they were handing these out which made me laugh but it's not funny. They have put the fear into women and talking them out and saying you’re murdering your baby'.

50 years after abortion first became legal in Britain, the fight continues. It could be months before we know whether the human rights case for amending Northern Ireland’s abortion law has been successful and we shall have to wait and see whether NHS England takes its cue from Scotland.

You might also be interested in:

Choosing Change: Meet The Women Fighting For Abortion Rights In Northern Ireland

Debrief Exclusive Investigation: Is Your Contraceptive Pill Causing Anxiety, Depression Or Suicidal Thoughts?

Half Of Women Who Had Abortions Last Year Were Using Contraception

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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