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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February, 2005, 11:09 GMT
The world of Vera Drake
By Anna Browning
BBC News

Vera Drake, played by Imelda Staunton
Mike Leigh's Oscar-nominated film about a backstreet abortionist called Vera Drake has opened the eyes of a modern audience to the dilemmas facing pregnant women before abortion became legal in 1967. Some of those women talk about what it was like.

Barbara had three abortions as a young student in 1965 and 1966. The first was performed lawfully by doctors because her mental health was thought to be at risk.

But it cost between 100 and 150, so Barbara used money she borrowed from a friend.

This was more traumatic than her later two "home-made" abortions, she says, partly due to the disdain of doctors which left her a mental wreck. The only advice she says she was given was to stop having sex because "no respectable girl does".

I knew it was dangerous and I knew it was illegal, but I had no alternative
Although the sexual revolution of the 1960s was in full swing, family planners insisted you wore a wedding ring to receive contraception, and took a dim view of sex outside marriage.

"My parents and most of the doctors around were of a generation that lived within the rules," she says. "We were of a generation who wanted to change the rules."

When she became pregnant for the second time she felt she could not go back, so with her friend's help she crudely aborted, despite the fatal risks. The third she did herself.

"I knew it was dangerous and I knew it was illegal, but I had no alternative," she said. Her main fear was being discovered. "We were very young and I suppose foolhardy."

Psychiatric assessment

Legal abortions were introduced after the acquittal in 1938 of Dr Alex Bourne, who performed one on a suicidal 14-year-old gang rape victim and argued in court her mental health was at risk.

The case paved the way for abortion in these circumstances but required the permission of two psychiatrists and was invariably carried out at a Harley Street Clinic.

Women were expected to behave in a certain way
The cost ruled out most women, but not Deborah, who is now 62. She had a legal abortion just before the act came into force in 1967.

"I'd been having a relationship with somebody I'd met at college for about 18 months and the condom slipped off and that was it," she says.

"I had a good relationship with my parents, so when I became pregnant they were the first people I told.

"I had a medical mother and they were very practical people, and we had the resources, so an abortion seemed the obvious thing to do."


The procedure cost 150, which was allowed to go ahead after Deborah convinced the two psychiatrists she was "upset enough". She stayed overnight at a north London clinic and had the abortion eight weeks into the pregnancy.

At that time, self-aborting and aborting were crimes which carried life sentences. But mothers who aborted were not usually prosecuted and abortionists were more likely to face prison sentences of five to 10 years, depending on the charge and if the pregnant girls or women died.

Through word-of-mouth and subterfuge, and partly driven by inadequate contraception, abortion was widespread. Newspapers advertised cures for "menstrual blockages", which were often lead-based and poisonous - some reportedly killing and blinding women.

Many women were left with not only feelings of loss but guilt
Margaret Cuthill
British Victims of Abortion
Some of the backstreet abortionists were unqualified, some were midwives and some were struck-off or foreign doctors.

It is believed abortion caused around 15% of all maternal deaths between 1923 and 1933, while countless others were left maimed after botched procedures.

Many women who did abort were traumatised in later life, says Margaret Cuthill, national co-ordinator for the pro-life group British Victims of Abortion.

"Once the pressure was gone to get rid of the problem, many women were left with not only feelings of loss but guilt - and that's what makes it so traumatic," she says.

On the other hand, they were so distressed at the prospect of having a baby, they were prepared to put their lives at risk, says Anne Quesney, director of Abortion Rights.

Weeks after Deborah aborted, the law changed and 164 years after it was banned, abortion became legal in England, Wales and Scotland, due to a Private Member's Bill by David Steel, then a 28-year-old MP.

Today it is estimated 10,000 women come to Britain every year from countries where abortion is not as available, including the Irish Republic, Portugal and Northern Ireland.

But illegal abortions still account for 80,000 deaths worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

I had an abortion in 1960...two Harley St psychiatrists, a doctor in a seedy surgery in Half Moon Street then the abortion in Ealing. Parents in 1960 were not willing to discuss such 'disgusting happenings'. I was on my own, you were made to feel dirty by the doctors etc, my father would not speak to me for 5-6 months, and I was forever made to feel unclean. How everything has improved. I would never wish this to happen to anyone.
Joan Graham, Portugal

Legalising abortion isn't about empowering women, giving women more rights etc. Its about taking away the rights of the unborn child -helpless, but never the less a human being. And it strikes me that this helplessness is the very reason that the unborn child needs the protection of the law.
Jo, Leeds, UK

With accounts like this, I think it is despicable that the US Government are trying to outlaw abortions on the basis of a supposed moral or religious high ground. Have they learnt nothing from history?
Rich W, Leics

Before 1967 thousands of women suffered horribly after back-street abortions. Since then, millions have suffered the psychological and physical consequences of abortion carried out by a health service that offers no moral support whatsoever to women who are often under pressure from doctors, partner, family etc. to have an abortion.
Susan Barnes, England

I had a "backstreet abortion" back in 1965 and it wasn't a very pleasant experience. However, I think there's a lot of myth about what backstreet abortions actually are. They were not performed down some dark alleyway but by professional doctors. Also, from my experience at least, the associated deaths and complications weren't from the abortion being carried out unprofessionally but by poor medical equipment.
Anonymous, UK

In Portugal all women still live with guilt, shame, sense of loss and the burden of a trials and maybe prison... Above all they still face tremendous health problems due to illegal abortions, almost forty years after it became legal in Britain. It is for this and many other reasons that I deeply sorry to say that we are still in the very far end of Europe
Teresa, Lisbon, Portugal

It's also important to note that pregnancy out of marriage carried much more stigma than today, even in the so-called "Swinging 60s." Women who had babies outside of marriage were subject to dismissal from their jobs and thus, their livelihoods. Many who were pregnant and abandoned by the father had difficulty finding jobs and supporting themselves.
Diane, USA

I am now 50 years old and have never been in the position of having to make the choice of abortion or not. When I was a child I lived in a village and my mother told me of a woman in our village who went to a back street abortionist to get rid of the baby, her 4th in four years to her husband. He came home from work that afternoon to find she had bled to death in the house after the "procedure". That would have been in the late 1950's. I got pregnant at 17 while still at school and unmarried, my mother was there for me every step of the way, my son is 32.
Denise Wilden, Maidenhead, UK

The discussion around the Vera Drake film is not just about abortion - it is also about social inequality, and the fact that working class women were prosecuted for illegal abortions while rich girls had them dealt with privately and securely. Whatever your perspective on pro-life/pro-choice, this injustice stinks!
Simon, Southport UK

Whatever the rights and wrongs of illegal/legal abortions, just imagine if life does begin at conception: the countless millions of humans beings that we have killed. I wouldn't want to be one of the people who made abortions legal...
Tim, London, UK

Why do they always assume that, because I am female, I must want children? I had a termination at 17 as I knew I couldn't deal with having a baby to look after. I have never had maternal feelings for a baby then and still don't at 40. Some of us are just not cut out for it.
Jo, UK

My girlfriend and I are in a very committed relationship, with marriage on the horizon once it is financially viable. Last year she fell pregnant and at the time we were students. We decided to have an abortion, which was not an easy decision. My girlfriend still suffers from feelings of grief, loss, shame and guilt. I did everything I could for her, but ultimately she had to actually abort the baby herself, and I doubt it is something she will ever forgive herself for.
Niall, England

I live in N Ireland where abortion is unavailable to most women. I had a child when I was 18 and with family help I`ve raised a very happy , healthy young boy who is now 12. In the meantime I`ve also travelled to England and had two abortions as I understand the implications and hardship of bringing two more children into the world that I would`ve struggled to cope with. I have never felt any pangs of remorse or guilt for what I have done, but believe that under the circumstances, for me, abortion was my only option.
Hilary, N Ireland

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