Review of Olivia Dee, The Anti-Abortion Campaign in England, 1966-1989 by Abigail Fletcher


Olivia Dee, The Anti-Abortion Campaign in England, 1966-1989 (Routledge, 2019). ISBN 9780367336196.


In The Anti-Abortion Campaign in England, 1966-1989, Olivia Dee provides historical analysis of the motivations and rhetoric of the activists and politicians who opposed the evolving law on reproductive liberty. Dee adopts a focused view, using case studies such as the White Bill 1975 and the Alton Bill in 1987, which linked opposition with the welfare of the woman, the foetus and the nation. This is a relevant, concise and accessible book appealing not only to the historian of gender, activism, or reproductive rights, but to anyone with an interest in the relationship between the state and the female body.

The Anti-Abortion Campaign in England amplifies work by Brookes whose 1988 study outlined state intrusion as abortion became a medically dominated procedure. Dee builds on focused work like Hoggart’s 2003 analysis of feminist campaigns for birth control in Britain, in addition to Hall’s 2011 profile of activist Stella Browne. This study benefits from Dee’s expertise relating to oral history and gender which she draws on in the work.

Dee’s book functions as a profile and explanation of the failure of the anti-abortion movement in England. She focuses on the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), which actively participated in the political debate surrounding abortion by lobbying and influencing MPs, as well as LIFE, which established a network of support services for pregnant women. Dee attributes the failure of this movement to a political climate that ensured reform of the 1967 Act would be an uphill struggle. A disunited opposition was further thwarted by unproductive timing of amendments and absolutism which inhibited support.

The book’s structure is at once chronological and thematic. Dee uses intimate case studies of amendments to reveal the shifting context of anti-abortion activism. She concludes by reflecting on the rhetoric deployed by all sides of the abortion debate. This avoids repetition and chronological ambiguity by pivoting on specific instances.

Dee relies on a skilled fusion of archival and press sources to elucidate a personal and often difficult to access subject. The ‘thornier, less public parts’ of this history are reconstructed through oral history interviews with MPs and activists (p.2). These provide some of the most illustrative examples in Dee’s study. Dilys Cossey captures the vulnerability and frustration of relying on her boyfriend ‘for his Durex… pack of three’ (p.117), with such dependence stirring her to activism. Dee’s choice of interviewees provides the basis for a balanced account, that whilst focusing on the anti-abortion campaign, always has its opposition in mind.

Dee situates abortion reform within the context of progressive politics. The late twentieth century witnessed alterations to divorce law, the abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England. This reflected a new climate of ideas about the role of the government in the prevention of harm and individual responsibility. The relationship between the State and the female body was further recalculated by advances in female health care and the widespread availability of the contraceptive pill.

It was within this context that anti-abortion activists unsuccessfully sought to amend the 1967 Act. In 1975 James White proposed semantic alterations to the Act, seeking to impose a twenty-one week restriction on abortions. In 1987, Liberal MP David Alton sacrificed his role as Chief Whip in his pursuit of an absolutist amendment. Dee uses the Alton bill to underline how difficult it was to reconcile an ideal of protection of all life with the political process.

Dee then invites us to consider the impact and implementation of abortion law. New legislation was the beginning of a new period of debate, which Dee adeptly narrates through press sources. Articles by Dom Peter Flood claimed that the rights of the father were side-lined, whilst the Daily Mail reported problems with hospital overcrowding. (p. 54). The validity of these claims was not unquestioned, with one Observer journalist dedicating a double page feature to her own experience of abortion, demonstrating the important role played by personal testimonies in shifting this narrative (p. 77).

One of the strengths of this study is the author’s wariness of homogeneity. Before the 1967 Act, Dee describes the occurrence of “abortion in two worlds” (p.7), one, where financially capable women readily received a termination from their doctors, and another in backstreet clinics where sterility or safety could not be taken for granted. Diane Munday, general secretary of Abortion Law Reform Association captured this dichotomy, “I had a cheque book to wave in Harley Street. I’m alive.”. A young married friend of Munday’s, Lorna, “didn’t have a cheque book to wave in Harley Street and she was dead”. (p. 12).

The anti-abortion movement was also compromised by the calculated silence of the Catholic Church. Dee attributes this reticence to the polarised nature of the birth control debate, as a lack of clarity from Rome until Humanae Vitae in 1968 generated uncertainty.

Some of the most emotive discussion in The Anti-Abortion Campaign in England concerns the rhetoric used by both sides of the debate. Dee’s clear analysis relies on legal theorists and philosophers to outline the theory that underpinned these arguments. A memorable 1983 SPUC advertisement read “If Women Had Glass Tummies Would They Ever Have Abortions?” (p. 134). David Alton’s 1987 campaign printed 1 million postcards depicting a natural miscarriage photographed in a dish of saline solution (p. 99). He claimed that negative reactions to the image were because “it shows what they would rather people did not see: the clear and unmistakable humanity of the child” (p. 100). Dee demonstrates how this “unmistakable humanity” might be purposefully constructed for political capital.

The Anti-Abortion Campaign in England offers a focused and concise analysis, though references to international developments such as Roe vs Wade could be further developed. Dee’s study could also benefit from more discussion of the lived experience of seeking a termination during this period. Emphasis is placed on the viewpoints and actions of politicians and activists, sometimes at the expense of how these ideas were internalised or experienced by ordinary women.

Recent developments in abortion legislation make this an exciting time for historians to take stock of the developments that preceded these changes. Much of the rhetoric cited by Dee from anti-abortionists like Alton would not seem out of place in modern-day Northern Ireland. Overall, Dee succeeds in her ambition of historicising the anti-abortion movement, whilst capturing the spectrum of attitudes towards abortion both within and outside of the parliamentary political system.

Abigail Fletcher is an MA student at Queen’s University Belfast, currently researching gender-based peace activism in Northern Ireland, 1969-1989. She received her first-class BA History from Magdalen College, Oxford and will begin a PhD examining homosexuality in Northern Ireland 1921-1982 in September 2020.