Call the Midwife, via Radio Times
The popular BBC series Call the Midwife, set in London’s East End in the 1960s, is to make abortion a central theme throughout the eighth instalment, according to the last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph. “It is a responsibility to make sure we are covering things sensitively in a properly researched way,” says executive producer Dame Pippa Harris.
What constitutes “proper research” on the subject of abortion is notoriously controversial. In this case the storylines were “influenced by research into HMP Holloway [a former women’s prison] whose “records showed more than 50 abortionists were incarcerated before the practice was legalised in 1967.”
Before the Act, however, thousands of abortions were carried out every year in hospitals, following the Bourne ruling of 1938 – and these were not merely a question of “finishing off” illegal abortions, as has been claimed. The 1967 Act protected doctors from prosecution providing they carried out abortions under specified grounds, and succeeded in massively increasing the numbers performed compared to the much smaller number of backstreet abortions pre-1967.
Judging by her approach, Dame Pippa may be relying on the 1963 study of Holloway abortionists by Moya Woodside, which also influenced the film Vera Drake. It paints a portrait of kindly, working-class altruists who were amazingly skilled, despite Woodside's interviews showing how venal, clumsy and ignorant they were – one even admitted to looking at the ceiling as she went to work. In reality, they were a public menace who killed other women, and anyone actually reading their self-serving testimonies cannot avoid forming an impression of their monumental self-pity.(1)
Woodside was a member of the Eugenics Society who supported sterilisation for poor black women (2), and the architects and drivers of the 1967 Abortion Act were eugenicists, a fact the programme is unlikely to mention. Admittedly, they were concerned about backstreet abortionists – they wanted to free them from prison so they could continue to eliminate the offspring of the “unfit”. Much earlier, that great opponent of eugenics, G. K. Chesterton, called abortion “the mutilation of womanhood and the massacre of men [i.e. human beings] unborn.” (3)
Dame Pippa says these episodes will “remind people of where we have come from,” although clearly she does not wish to remind viewers that at some point in time someone allowed them to be born. She emphasises “how recently abortion was illegal here, and the effect that had on a huge number of women’s lives, not just the women themselves but the people closest to them.” However, the most fundamental effect it has had on women is that nine million of “those closest to them” were never born. What a great step forward for womankind!
Her subtext seems to be, “Don’t restrict abortion unless you want to go back to those terrible times.” But any voices calling for retstraint are now completely drowned by the clamour for abolition of the 1967 Act and for women to be able to take abortion pills in their own homes, with no medical involvement whatsoever.
Ironically, campaigners who insist that restricting abortion will lead to backstreet abortion, are themselves are helping to resurrect the backstreet abortionist. Far from calling the midwife, women will be calling for abortion pills online — and if it all goes wrong, someone will have to call for the undertaker.
Ann Farmer lives in the UK. She is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (CUAP, 2008); The Language of Life: Christians Facing the Abortion Challenge (St Pauls, 1995), and Prophets & Priests: the Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement (St Austin Press, 2002).
(1) Moya Woodside, 'Attitudes of Women Abortionists', 11th Howard Journal 93, 1963.
(2) Moya Woodside, Sterilization in North Carolina (Chapel Hill N.C., 1950).
(3) G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1922).