On 5 July 2022, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, an organisation held by the nation in high regard, turns 74.
Modern healthcare in the UK is a form of nationalised, universal government healthcare that is intertwined heavily with politics. While this promotes nationwide accessibility to healthcare, it has also put the decisions surrounding and changes to female healthcare in the hands of Members of Parliament rather than obstetricians and gynaecologists. In light of Women’s History Month, this article will explore the big changes to female healthcare in the 1960s. This is an important era to address at it was in this defining decade that both the contraceptive pill and abortions became accessible to all through the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales.
Following an announcement by the Health Minister Enoch Powell in 1961, the NHS began providing certain women the contraceptive pill. The right of women to receive contraception was extended in 1967 with the Family Planning Act. Where the scope of the 1961 decision was narrow, the Family Planning Act enabled the NHS to give advice to all women about contraception and provide unmarried women with contraception. This drive for wider access to contraception was pioneered by the Member of Parliament for Bebington Edwin Brooks. He saw contraception as a solution to the problem of low-income, working-class women that struggled to financially support their children, specifically in Birkenhead. Alongside second-wave feminists, Brooks helped advertise that the pill hugely benefits more than a woman’s health; the pill provides social and economic liberation to women, allowing them to control the timing and number of their pregnancies.
As the year in which abortion was legalised in Great Britain (notably not in Northern Ireland until 2020, however), 1967 was monumental for British female reproductive rights. The Abortion Act of 1967 enabled women in England, Scotland, and Wales to receive an abortion through the NHS. This was vital for women’s safety - abortions now could be performed in hospitals safely, replacing the dangerous alternatives that many women turned to to terminate their pregnancy.
The decisions in 1967 to allow contraception and abortion was an enormous success for the second-wave feminist movement and for women across Britain. It is interesting to note that this was decided by a Parliament of 604 male MPs and only 26 female MPs.
That these rights were obtained in the 1960s and have remained accessible to all since is worth celebrating. In contrast, the United States case of Roe v. Wade has continuously been attacked and made into a binary political issue since its introduction in 1973.
A conversation about women’s reproductive rights in the UK must consider the complicated and divisive case of Northern Ireland. For many years, abortion in Northern Ireland was only permitted when the mother’s life was at risk, with no other exceptions. During the suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive, the Parliament in Westminster took the opportunity to decriminalise abortion and give Northern Irish women access to it. This was a huge victory for pro-choice campaigners, and whilst decriminalisation has been achieved, the details of accessibility are still being debated in political amendments. The fight for Northern Ireland to have accessible abortions is not over just yet.