The provisions of that have subsequently been extended to Northern Ireland with the support and complicity of Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
Since that time there have been over ten million abortions carried out in England, Scotland and Wales. The annual figure is now over 200,000 compared to 35,000 in England and Wales in 1968.
The statistics for the first years of legalised abortion appeared to indicate that the number of illegal abortions – estimated at up to 200,000 by the Liberal MP David Steel whose private members bill formed the basis of the Act – had been grossly exaggerated.
Ending “back street” abortions and alleviating the pressures on working class families were the two main reasons given by those who spoke in favour of the legislation. Curiously, the current narrative that abortion is somehow part of the liberation of women was little rehearsed, in Westminster at least.
Nor was support for abortion a default option for all of the left. While only a small number of MPs voted against the Bill, it should be noted that among those who did support it was Margaret Thatcher, while several of the most powerful speeches opposing were given by left wing Labour MPs, two of them from Irish backgrounds.
One of these was Simon Mahon who was the Labour MP for Bootle who said that his previous support for abortion had ended when he had met the parents of one of the “subnormal children” whose destruction it was assured would help to make them more prosperous and happy. Mahon, who had been in the British army in World War II, pulled no punches in making the comparison between abortion and what that war had been about.
Another Labour MP, William Wells, stated that abortion “undermines respect for the sanctity of human life,” and dismissed as a canard the claim that it was part of creating a “progressive society.” Kevin McNamara, one of the few Labour MPs who consistently supported Irish unity, pointed out that the experience of other countries including Japan, Sweden and Hungary, was that legalising abortion did nothing – as was being claimed – to reduce the actual numbers of abortions.
The Labour MP for Pontypool in Wales, Leo Abse, declared that passing the Act would represent “a proclamation of defeat on behalf of the community,” and place them philosophically alongside “the great life deniers” of the National Socialists in Germany against whom he had fought. Referring to those on the left who regarded abortion as something to do with socialism, Abse said:
I am not impressed by the argument that because the rich do something stupid working class people should follow their example…. Some of my Friends should not think that they are waging the class struggle . . .
While supporters avoided the triumphalist rhetoric of many of their later Irish imitators – including those TDs whose highpoint of their political careers was the copying of British abortion legislation – some of the key devices were similar. There was a focus, for example, on the danger to a woman’s life through the possibility of mental health issues leading to suicide.
Supporters within the general community both highlighted this and in many cases claimed that doctors would so rarely recommend an abortion on “mental health” grounds that the overall incidence of abortion would decline. Now of course, the vast majority of abortions in the UK are facilitated on that basis – so more than 9 million abortions have been carried out on that ground.
The main philosophical argument was typical of the liberal left of that period – and shared more cynically by utilitarian free market “conservatives” – was that aborting children likely to become a social burden would reduce both the pressure on working families and reduce the overall economic costs of supporting them.
I think the latter position, which was evidently shared by Thatcher and other Tories, was adequately answered by William F. Buckley in his response to libertarian novelist Ayn Rand’s support for abortion which led her to oppose Reagan because of his stated intent to curb the impact of Roe versus Wade. Buckley considered the Randian libertarian right’s support for abortion to be part of what he agreed with Whitaker Chambers was an “unfeeling meritocratic” individualism.
The left liberal position was best put by Dr. David Owen who was then a Labour MP and later leader of the Social Democratic Party. Owen clearly believed in something called “social medicine,” which was part of the “progressive and inevitable” improvement of humanity under the benign watch of societal engineers.
Owen claimed that legalising abortion would give doctors the power to deal with the problems which he claimed led to women seeking such a recourse, and that through the enlightened intervention of chaps such as himself and the promotion of better sex education and the greater availability of contraception, that maybe the incidence of abortion would actually be reduced.
Of course, Owen’s naïve belief in our capacity to “control the evolution of humanity” has been demonstrated to be a myth. Not least of all by the manner in which abortion has become in all too many cases not an option of last resort but, as Tory MP Jill Knight pointed out, something that would lead to a situation in which any woman who “felt that her coming baby would be an inconvenience would be able to get rid of it.”
The failure of the human race to live up to the expectations of the w-uld be moulders of a “person of a new type” is proof of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s dictum that if human nature does change, and there is no evidence from history that it does, it evolves at a geological pace. A comparison of where Britain is now compared to where it was in 1967 offers no solace to those who would claim that abortion leads to a healthier society.
Of course those in Ireland who still believe as their counterparts have done for generations that adopting English “civility” is the way to do probably do not care. At least the proponents of abortion in Westminster made some sort of pitch that it was part of the brave new world that appeared possible back then. Their late imitators make no such claims, nor do they care about much other than ticking another box on their “progressive” bucket list.