Why David Steel’s Abortion Act means so much to me – a reflection on its 50th Anniversary

Today is an important day. We, as Liberals, need to remember that 50 years ago, on this day, the Abortion Act came into being.

Why is this important? I know many people, especially disabled people, feel a real conflict about this legislation. There are issues to consider here, not least with regard to the concept of gender selective abortion and I would urge people to look at MP voting records on this important topic.

Back in the 1960s, the oral contraceptive was still in its infancy. Abortion was illegal and many women faced the real social stigma of being pregnant and unmarried. Fortunately, attitudes have changed. However a real and profound reason for the idea of the Act was not, as many people think, convenience. In actual fact, women were dying every year, in the U.K. from illegal and unsafe abortions. I am talking about women who had few options, where access to clinics was for the rich. A young Liberal MP, David Steel, took up the challenge and the Act was drafted.

Amongst the team of civil servant legal officers was a woman in her early twenties, who would have been deeply affected by issues around women’s reproductive health. I cannot tell you what she, coming to adulthood in this era, must have experienced with her friends, but I do know that she had fellow female students who were married with children at an early age. Did she know anyone who had had to engage the services of a woman like Vera Drake, someone who did their best to help women in trouble? Did she know someone who had died or became unable to have children as the result of infection from an unsafe abortion? I don’t know.  I do know that the experience and what she learnt from drafting the legislation had a profound effect on her and she went on in life to strongly support women’s reproductive rights and health. Her views on people who wanted changes to U.K. legislation “because it felt right” were quite strong. I know she was happy to discuss it with her daughters. I know this because she was my mother.

I am doubly proud of this achievement today, both as a Liberal Democrat and as her daughter. This was an incredible step forwards in reproductive rights for women. We should celebrate this at a time when women in Central America are being incarcerated for having a miscarriage and when  access to safe abortion in the US and, indeed, effective contraception, is being rolled back at a rate that makes the country look more like The Republic of Gilead from A Handmaid’s Tale, than a progressive nation.

My mother refused an abortion during her fifth pregnancy, even though her life was at risk. Everyone, including her retired GP father told her she was at risk of death if she did not. She chose not to and everything turned out fine. I too, am not sure I would have a termination. I have my own criteria for what I consider acceptable reasons. Where we both agreed, though, is that it must be science that influences the law, not personal belief. That whatever our views on the subject, we didn’t have the right to impose them on other people. I am a supporter of exclusion zones around clinics, to prevent the harassment of vulnerable women by pro-life groups, some of who give entirely wrong information to people. Above all, I support the right of people to make their own choices on this, safely and well informed.

I was told growing up that this legislation was about saving lives: it was about the mental health of women as much as their physical health. It was about stopping people from dying unnecessarily. It is as important today as then, even with the advances in pregnancy prevention.  We should celebrate this achievement today.

As my mother often put it, the value of legislation is in its effect: less than a year after the legislation came into power, the number of women dying from unsafe abortion dropped. Saving these lives is something worth celebrating. Celebrating women’s rights is as important today as it was in 1967. David is right when he says that we need to extend rights, not retract them.

* Caroline Macdonald is a member of the Liberal Democrats based in Edinburgh North and Leith.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Oct '17 - 12:45am


    A remark at the beginning makes this the outstanding article on this subject on here .

    I was brought up as a Catholic. The upbringing was a moderate and even quite liberal one, the age of this act, means in the London of the eighties draconian and Christian rarely went hand in hand.

    I favour the abortion laws as they are but , as did Lord Steele , who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time more recently , speaking at a meeting, came to the view we need to reduce the weeks as science and medicine progress and the life growing can survive earlier, outside the womb.

    But the opening of your piece is profound.

    Gender, as with certain so called disability reasons, cannot to me as a human being, ever be acceptable as a way of wanting and having an avoidable , very much so, abortion.It appalls me that more is not done to at least discuss this, and those like our previous leader who would have, were and are made to conform to often to the vast majority opinion.

    A Liberalism that is only majoritarianism is not much of a one.

    Which is why the left and far left in America do not understand how they abuse the word, as do the conservative right there.

  • Ed Shepherd 28th Oct '17 - 7:25pm

    People want to terminate a pregnancy for many reasons including extremes such as incest or rape or poverty, If a woman was brought before a court for having an illegal abortion and I was on the jury would I vote for a guilty verdict? No. Never. For pragmatic, legalistic reasons, I come to the conclusion that I would never condemn anyone who had an abortion or assisted someone to do so. Abortion for reasons of not wanting a particular gender of child is a societal problem and should be solved by changing society rather than criminal sanctions.

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