On a wet weekend in early November, I and several GPs in Tower Hamlets BMA spent two hours on Stratford’s Romford Road to oppose the regular harassment of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.
I arrived by bike at 9.30am, and there were already people there to defend the clinic. At 9.45am, we were met by a small procession coming round the corner, its participants bearing banners with pictures of the Madonna, an early foetus about a metre high, and rosaries. The people in the procession prayed, sang and chanted on the other side of the road from us.
Like them, we had our own banners and placard – but ours read, ‘my body, my choice’ and ‘stop the harassment of abortion clinics’. We had the support of several passers-by.
That day, I recalled that I was 15 when the 1967 Abortion Act was passed. The year after, my penfriend’s 13 year-old sister fell pregnant from rape. Having had no access to termination at home, came to London with her mother. They stayed with our family.
My mother, a doctor and a feminist, knew the deaths and disasters that followed backstreet abortions. She welcomed the Act as a step change in women’s rights.
As a student in the seventies, I took part in campaigns for choice: abortion, contraception, child care and mother’s rights, and, as I suppose now you would call it, ‘patient-centred care’. In Tower Hamlets we organised opposition to the anti-abortion bills and met working class women who had experienced unwanted pregnancies before the Act was passed. Together we were loud supporters of setting safe local daycare NHS services.
In hospitals at the time, there generally seemed to be hostility to women having terminations, but we found that by contrast local GPs were overwhelmingly in favour of safe services. Their memories of family planning went back over decades, back to when poor women patients had no choice but to accept dangerous treatment..
Over the last thirty years as a GP in the borough I have witnessed how services such as the Mile End Pregnancy Care Advisory Service allow women to make real choices over their pregnancies safely, just as BPAS now does for patients in Newham. As GPs, we joined other local women’s rights activists to oppose the harassment of staff and patients at safe services. We know that pro-life protestors in the US have closed clinics and even murdered gynaecologists and we don’t want to see that here.
The week after our defence of the clinic, I read about the tragic death from septicaemia of the young Indian dentist, Savita Praveen Halappanavar, in Ireland’s Galway University Hospital. Savita had a much wanted pregnancy, but in hospital in agony, having been told she would miscarry, regular requests for abortion were refused by her doctor. She died four days after an ERPC following the stopping of the foetal heart.
Her family in India have condemned Irish law for subjecting Hindus in Ireland to the ban on abortions. In Ireland, there is horror and shame about the inhumanity of what has happened to Savita, and many Irish people have called for a change in the law. Let us hope that the loss of Savita Halappanavar will be a wake-up call for the need for safe legal abortion services for all women who need them.
Dr Anna Livingstone is a GP in Limehouse, east London.