We might date the modern view of abortion to the Rex v Bourne case of 1938. British law already allowed abortion where the mother was in danger of death. The case extended this to a qualified doctor who in good faith removed a pregnancy for the purpose of preserving the mother’s life.
The distinction between danger of death and the preserving of the mother’s life introduced a broader level of judgment with particular emphasis on the good faith of the doctor. I happened in the 1950s to be privy to the records of an expensive West End doctor from which I concluded that a chequebook might be helpful too. As Roy Jenkins (then Home Secretary) described it, it was one law for the poor and another for the rich.
So it was no surprise in the 1960s, when the prospect of more liberal legislation was in sight, that much was made of the frequency and the dangers of illegal abortion, to which the poorer class was vulnerable. The picture of knitting needles, old hags and backrooms in the slums was vivid. At the emotional level the issue became one of proletarian danger and death.
But big round numbers are powerful in emotional debate and much was made of the claim that 100,000 illegal abortions took place every year. The number, estimated at that time by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists at some 15,000, could not cut the mustard by comparison.
Fortunately there was another level of debate. I got involved in this as a result of a letter I sent to The Spectator. I was a very young man and must have assumed that the simple case I laid out was so incontrovertible that the issue would be abandoned: the forces of evil would retreat to their holes. They did not. The initial positions that the foetus was either a human being and thus sacrosanct, or that it was not yet a human being and thus had no rights, never changed. The Anglican bishops lay in between: the foetus was a “potential human being” and thus had a secondary right to life which should be protected unless the mother’s life was in danger.
It was in this context that I found myself meeting the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA). I believed that brief exchanges in the press could never resolve the question, and that it required a written debate which would lay out the arguments. ALRA members appeared to be open to this but said they were unable to find the time. I was less keen on the offered alternative which was a public debate and would be more dependent on the quality of the speakers than of the argument.
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