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Women's Issues and Childcare UK: early-mid 20th C


'Back street' illegal abortion, early-mid 20th century UK

While I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s there was a dreadful stigma if an unmarried woman had a child, and this stigma was not only applied to the her but also - quite wrongly and illogically - to her child. The child was formally described as 'illegitimate' or a 'bastard' or 'born the wrong side of the blanket'. So, as abortion was illegal, what was a woman to do, if she found herself pregnant outside marriage? This page considers the options open to her.

Backstreet abortions, illegal operations and their risks

In the first half of the 1940s I was not too young to understand that something secretive was being talked about in the wider family. As the years went by, I was able to gather that it was that a female relative had had what was then called an 'illegal operation' or a 'back-street abortion'.

At that time, the penalties for illegal abortions were severe.

Abortions which were not medically sanctioned were known as 'back street abortions' because, as often as not, they were performed secretly in back streets.

These operations were expensive and dangerous. The individuals performing them normally had only minimal medical training and used instruments that were seldom properly sterilised. Women having these abortions often bled badly, became infected and were unable to have children afterwards - and all parties were subject to the weight of the law if they were found out.

Why backstreet abortionists thrived

The illegal abortion in my wider family was considered necessary because the woman concerned had 'got herself into trouble' - as the saying went - ie had become pregnant by a man who was not her husband. Her husband was away serving overseas in the forces and the man concerned was probably a foreign serviceman stationed in England.

Alternatives to backstreet abortion

The following are examples which I know for a fact to be true, but there can be little doubt that that there were numerous similar cases

Marrying without love

If an unmarried woman found herself pregnant, there were alternatives to backstreet abortion but none were ideal.

The two could marry if both free to do so - to quote another well-known saying - 'to give the child a name', the name being the surname of the father. The woman was described as 'having to get married' and the man as 'doing the right thing by her'. These were common expressions in my childhood.

Some of these marriages must have been successful, but by no means all. My grandmother, for example, found herself pregnant as a result of a one-night stand. Apparently my grandfather never wanted to marry her, but due to pressure in the family, he did so after making her wait until she was six months pregnant. (This was of course a secret even to her children. It only came to light after she died, when her children compared the dates on her marriage certificate with the birth certificate of her first child. Then they asked around the older members or the wider family.) My grandparents were not suited and were miserable as a couple. That much was no secret, even though they managed three more children. I was told that an aunt advised my grandmother to leave him, but she said that as she had no money for herself or her children, she couldn't, as she wouldn't inflict the stigma of the workhouse on them.

Inventions of different circumstances

Because I have researched family history in such detail, I can give another example of a reaction to unwanted pregnancy.

The woman concerned moved away from the area and invented a wealthy businessman who took a job in Paris where they married. The child was said to have been born there and the 'husband' died there. She even had a photo of an elegantly attired gentleman who she passed off as him. She only had the one child, who, by this ruse, she managed to bring up herself. Later that child had nine children in wedlock who were shown the photo of their 'grandfather' and taught to respect it. Copies were even circulated to their own children as being of their great grandfather. In all the censuses the woman concerned was described as this man's widow. I would never have discovered this ruse without the internet.

Extended absence then adoption

Another solution was for a woman who found herself with an unwanted pregnancy was to absent herself in various ways, have the baby and either find a home for it or put it up for adoption. Among the wealthier classes such women would formally 'take the European tour' to absent themselves.

Encouraging miscarriage

Yet another solution was to try to bring on a miscarriage, for example by throwing oneself down some stairs, drinking gin or poking around with needles. As far as I could tell, these solutions were generally pointless wastes of time at best and often seriously risky at best.

Incidentally, whether gin was more effective than other alcoholic drinks, I can't say, but it did earn itself the name of 'mothers ruin'.

How women managed to find back street abortionists

I understood that it was not too difficult to find a back street abortionist, provided that one had money and well-connected friends.

As another common expression of the time put it: 'Somebody always knew somebody who knew somebody' to arrange the abortion.

Medically sanctioned abortions

A good proportion of doctors were sympathetic to women's plight and offered legal abortions wherever they reasonably could within the law. I know this because my aunt who was seriously disabled in the blitz of the Second World War was offered a medically sanctioned abortion. She refused, and it was to her credit that she produced and raised a healthy daughter who was a great source of comfort to her. My aunt, though, was married at the time and the child was her husband's.

The 1967 Abortion Act gave doctors much more freedom to sanction abortions.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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