Abortion act: Forty years of freedom to choose

On this day in 1968, British women were liberated from the dangers of back-street procedures

Paul Bignell
Sunday 27 April 2008 00:00 BST

Josephine Woodgate was 25 when she had one of the UK's earliest legal abortions. Today, 40 years after women were given the legal right to abortion, she remains haunted by the choice she made.

With one child from a previous marriage, Ms Woodgate, from Exmouth, Devon, was on the verge of leaving her then partner when she learned she was pregnant again. "I was panicking, I couldn't think straight," said Ms Woodgate, 62. "I was nearly 12 weeks pregnant and was depressed; we didn't even have a proper home." She said she got little support. "The nurses weren't very friendly. It was like I had done something very bad. Nobody came to talk to me or give me any advice and I was terrified. Nobody told you what was going to happen. It was kind of 'get on with your life'.

"Over the years, the regret I felt has never waned. Even now, I still catch myself wondering about the child I might have had, if only I had been given more information at the time."

The Abortion Act, which took effect 40 years ago today, was designed to end an illegal trade in back-street operations that frequently led to women suffering terrible injuries. Dr David Paintin, a retired obstetrician, had to deal regularly with the aftermath of illegal abortions. "When I was first appointed in the early 1960s at St Mary's Hospital, London, we were admitting five to 10 women a day with pain and bleeding from early pregnancy," he said. "At the time we just called them incomplete abortions."

The number of women opting for abortion has more than doubled since 1968. In 2006 there were just over 200,000 procedures in the UK.

Kat Stark, 24, a union administrator from Warwick, has no regrets about having an abortion. She was 19 when she became pregnant while at university. "When I found out I was pregnant I didn't have any money or a partner. I knew there was no way I could have a baby," she said. "When I spoke to the doctor about an abortion, they spent half an hour with me going through all the different options. They were really supportive."

As an issue abortion remains as divisive as ever. A parliamentary proposal to reduce the legal time limit for abortion from its current 24 weeks to 20 will be debated next month.

Lord Steel, who steered the original Act through Parliament, said: "You can never reach agreement on the subject of abortion. Those who are against it will always be against it."

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