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


Backstreet abortion and options for unwanted pregnancy in the past

unmarried and pregnant

Abortion is the deliberate termination of pregnancy. Yet there was little reliable contraception in the past, and there was a dreadful stigma if an unmarried woman had a baby. 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'. But abortion was illegal. So what was a woman to do if she found herself pregnant outside marriage? This page considers the options open to her in Britain: backstreet abortion - also known as an illegal operation; marrying without love; inventive deception; encouraging miscarriage and absenting herself from society.


By the webmaster, based on many years of observations and additional research

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 a 'backstreet abortion', or more politely an 'illegal operation'.

At that time, the penalties for these illegal operations were severe.

Backstreet abortions (also spelt 'back street' abortions) were so-called because, as often as not, they were performed secretly in back streets.

These operations were expensive, dangerous and illegal. The individuals performing them, the abortionists, 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. Hence the secrecy.

Why backstreet abortionists thrived

The illegal operation in my wider family was considered necessary because the woman concerned had 'got herself into trouble' - as the saying went - i.e. 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. There were many such unwanted pregnancies in the Second World War with so many British men away in the services.

Alternatives to backstreet abortion

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

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

The man responsible could marry the woman if both were free to do so. This was - to quote another well-known saying - 'to give the child a name', the name being the surname of the father on the birth certificate. 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 date on her marriage certificate with that on 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 two 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.

Incidentally there was a stigma about divorce too.

Inventive deception

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 had 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 back in Britain without any stigma. 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 - including me - 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 the ruse without considerable work delving into old records.

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 always seriously risky healthwise.

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

Extended absence

Another solution for a woman who found herself with an unwanted pregnancy was to absent herself from society, 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' as the excuse to absent themselves and then pay to live secretly with someone trusted.

There were also a forms of 'so-called' nursing homes where the women could hide themselves away, work through their pregnancy and have the baby. I understand that they were treated very badly indeed in these places because 'nice' girls would never have found themselves in such a situation.

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 described it as: 'Somebody always knew somebody who knew somebody' to arrange the abortion.

Medically sanctioned abortions

Many doctors were sympathetic to women's plights 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 two healthy daughters who were great sources of comfort to her. My aunt, though, was married at the time and the children were 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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