Stigma and secrecy that marked a different world: The Act that paved the way for safe, legal abortions came into effect 25 years ago today. Liz Hunt looks back on one woman's campaign

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The Independent Online
WHEN DIANE MUNDAY admitted that she had had an abortion, people in the village where she lived refused to speak to her. When her husband bought a car, rumour spread that it was paid for from the proceeds of 'back-street' abortions carried out on their kitchen table. 'You have no idea of the feeling, the vilification, but it was a different world then,' she said.

Abortion remains an uncomfortable subject. Few women who have undergone a termination find it easy to admit it, even to the closest of friends. Magazines, which regularly delve into the most intimate physical and psychological aspects of a woman's life, rarely touch it. But if they do, the tone is sympathetic; there is an understanding that this is a traumatic experience.

Twenty-five years ago today, the 1967 Abortion Act came into effect. Together with the abolition of hanging and legalisation of homosexuality, the Act was one of the key pieces of legislation of that decade.

Before the Act, it had indeed been a 'different' world, one in which abortion was a shameful secret, something that could never be acknowledged because of its association with criminality and promiscuous sexual behaviour. Yet, in the 1950s and early 1960s, an estimated 100,000 women a year chose to undergo an abortion. The lucky ones could pay for the operation privately; those who could not were forced to seek a back-street practitioner or attempt it themselves.

Mrs Munday, 62, was one of the pioneers of the abortion movement. In the early 1950s, a friend, a young mother of three from the East End of London, died after a botched, back- street abortion. 'She died because she was a good mother not a bad one. She and her husband simply could not afford another child,' she said.

Then, in 1961, Mrs Munday found herself pregnant for the fourth time in three years, and she knew that she could not go through with it. As a diabetic, she had suffered problems before and borne large babies. 'I knew that I had reach my own personal limit, and the strength of my feeling shocked me.'

She tried the conventional channels first and her doctor referred her to University College Hospital, London. The hospital had a liberal reputation and a professor who was sympathetic to women seeking abortion. But she saw a supercilious young psychiatrist who told her that, while she had all sorts of mental problems, she should have the baby.

A friend of a friend then gave her the number of a Harley Street gynaecologist, who told her to see a psychiatrist and get a certificate to say her health was at risk if she went through with the pregnancy. The certificate cost 10 guineas ( pounds 10.50) - 'a formality,' Mrs Munday said - and the abortion pounds 90. 'My first thought when I came round from the anaesthetic was that I was alive because I could afford pounds 90 and my friend had died because she couldn't'

Mrs Munday joined the Abortion Law Reform Society and became their spokeswoman. She and fellow committee members - notably Vera Houghton, wife of a government minister Lord Houghton - galvanised support in the years leading up to the passing of the Act.

Together they spoke out on radio and television and at public meetings, and each time Mrs Munday told the audience that she had had an abortion. To her surprise, she found herself mobbed by women at these meetings - 'respectable elderly women in their hats and gloves, who wanted to tell me their experiences of abortion', she said.

After the Act became law, Mrs Munday was instrumental in the launch of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and the Pregnancy Advisory Service, two charities which were established to help women who were unable to obtain abortions in the area where they lived.

Twenty-five years on, this availability of abortion continues to vary regionally. Just half of the legal abortions - 184,000 carried out each year - are provided by the NHS. The campaign for abortion law reform, headed by the Pro-Choice Alliance and ALRA continues.

Although she is no longer actively involved in campaigning, Mrs Munday believes that much of the last 25 years has been wasted, 'defending' the Act against a vigorous campaign by the anti-abortion lobby. As a result, Britain, which pioneered abortion legislation, now lags behind the rest of Europe where abortion on request in the first three months of pregnancy is available in 13 countries. Here, 'rigid' legal requirements remain in place, which led to many abortions being carried out much later in pregnancy than necessary. In addition, RU486, the abortion pill which, it is claimed, should make a termination less traumatic for women, is not widely available. 'It always was a matter of politics over women's needs and that situation hasn't really changed. We need new legislation which will make it easier for a woman to get an abortion earlier,' Mrs Munday says.