Real history behind Call the Midwife: What is the Abortion Act and when did it pass?

In season 10, abortion is still illegal – but the law is about to change.

Call the Midwife

Over the last few seasons, Call the Midwife has covered the topic of abortion across multiple storylines – and always with great thoughtfulness and care.

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We’ve seen the effects of desperate self-induced abortions (or attempted abortions), with skewers and drugs; we’ve seen the backstreet abortions, carried out in unsanitary conditions with unclean instruments. And we’ve also seen the safer (but still illegal) option of abortion secretly carried out by doctors at private clinics.

Alongside that, we have followed the stories of so many desperate women who feel they have no other choice but to terminate their pregnancies – whether that be because of poverty, or abuse, or because they are unmarried, or because they are just not ready to be mothers.

The first season of Call the Midwife was set in 1957. With each season of the show, a year has passed, and now in season 10 we have reached 1966. That puts us on the cusp of an important change in the law. Here’s what you need to know:

When was abortion legalised?

The Abortion Act 1967 was signed into law on 27th October of that year, and came into effect six months later. From that point, abortion was legal in a wide range of cases – everywhere in Great Britain, except Northern Ireland. This landmark legislation remains in place today (with some amendments).

Season 10 of Call the Midwife covers the whole of 1966, so we’ve just reached a point in history where the debate was ramping up and the process was beginning in Parliament. Season 11 will cover the year in which the Act actually passed.

What was the law in 1966?

As Nurse Trixie Franklin (Helen George) points out heatedly to Mr Scarisbrick (Richard Dillane) of the Lady Emily Clinic, abortion remained illegal in 1966, even if it was being debated in Parliament.

Historically, self-induced abortion or supplying the means for an abortion had been prohibited under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. This was punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Another key piece of legislation was the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929. This created the offence of child destruction, but clarified that an abortion could be carried out in exceptional circumstances.

Those “exceptional circumstances” were clarified in 1938 when a 14-year-old girl was gang-raped, and became suicidal when she fell pregnant. Dr Alex Bourne challenged the law and performed an abortion because the pregnant girl’s mental health was in danger. Following this precedent, some women were granted a safe abortion – if a psychiatrist approved (and the woman could afford a psychiatrist).

Call The Midwife S8
Cath became ill after an illegal abortion in season eight (BBC)

Who campaigned for abortion legalisation?

There were several strands in the campaign for legal abortion.

For one thing, there was growing pressure for a law which eliminated dangerous back-street abortions, and put the procedure in the hands of doctors (who could carry the procedure out more safely). This was one of the initial aims of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), which became a powerful voice on the issue.

The doctors themselves also sought new legislation. The medical establishment wanted clear laws establishing whether they could terminate a pregnancy that threatened the life of the woman, or would result in grave injury to her health; as explained above, there were precedents that had been established over the years, but they needed more clarity to avoid getting into legal trouble. Campaigner and doctor DB Paintin wrote to the British Medical Journal in 1966: “At present the law seems uncertain and threatening, and consequently is frequently interpreted narrowly.”

Also, a report in the British Journal of Criminology from 1966 provides a snapshot of how quickly the issue of abortion rose to the top of the agenda, and how people’s feelings changed. Madeleine Simms wrote: “The significant development since 1964 has been that this debate has reached the general public, and in consequence become a life political issue. Not so long ago, newspaper editors, broadcasters and television producers hesitated over abortion because of the scandalous and controversial nature of the subject. Now, more often, if they hesitate at all, it is because the subject has been over-exposed.”

In spring 1965, a nationwide survey found that three-quarters of the public believed abortion ought to be legal, at least in some cases.

Ann Mitchell plays Elsie Dyer in Call the Midwife
Val’s grandma Elsie Dyer was revealed as an illegal abortionist (BBC)

How was abortion legalised? The Abortion Act 1967 explained

Momentum was building for a change in the law, but the government would not introduce legislation themselves. Instead, it was left to an MP called David Steel to introduce the Act as a Private Member’s Bill.

This unusual set-up requires a brief explanation. Most of the time, it is the government which comes up with a bill and introduces it to Parliament. However, individual Members of Parliament can also propose legislation, and that is what Steel decided to do.

Very few Private Member’s Bills ever succeed, because they are given little time or priority. Previous attempts to change the abortion law this way had failed, including a bill introduced by Renee Short MP in June 1965 – and Lord Silkin’s Abortion Bill of November 1965.

But Steel’s bill came just at the right moment; and even though Steel was from the Liberal Party, the Labour government gave his Private Member’s Bill their backing. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins ensured the bill was given enough time to allow a full debate.

In addition, the government appointed Sir John Peel (the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) to chair a medical advisory committee. It reported in favour of passing the bill.

Members of Parliament were given a free vote on the Abortion Bill. After a spirited debate, it passed – with only 29 MPs voting against.

Under the Abortion Act, two doctors are required “acting in good faith, to certify that the abortion is legal when a pregnancy of less than 24 weeks threatens the physical or mental health of the woman and her children, taking into account her actual or foreseeable environment.”

The limit was originally 28 weeks, but was reduced to 24 weeks in most cases under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 after advances in medical technology moved the goalposts for when a pregnancy could be considered viable.

Additional reporting: Anna Barry

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Call the Midwife continues on Sundays at 8pm on BBC One. Take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out our TV guide to find out what else is on.