There is one abortion clinic in Northern Ireland: a Marie Stopes clinic on Great Victoria Street, which joins the two-up two-down red brick terraces of the Lisburn Road, where Ulster banners fly from the lampposts, to the City Hall with its eau-de-nil dome and pale stone statue of Queen Victoria. The clinic isn’t easy to find: the signs beside the door at No 14 are for BioKinetic Europe, which runs clinical trials, MKB Law, and Bupa; next door there’s a Tesco Express and Boojum, a ‘Mexican Burrito bar’. Danielle Roberts, an abortion rights activist with Alliance for Choice, says that on the days the clinic is open – Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. – you can’t miss it: members of the pressure group Precious Life are always outside. (‘We are saving babies, mothers, and indeed this country from the silent holocaust that is brutally destroying 50 million lives worldwide every year.’) Danielle acts as an escort for women with appointments on the eighth floor: two activists for every woman, one wearing a ‘body cam, as there have been assaults and harassment’.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 17 · 7 September 2017
‘I found no one who would talk to me about [abortion] in the time I was preparing this piece,’ Joanna Biggs writes, prompting me to set down my experience in 1966, a year before the Abortion Act was passed (LRB, 17 August). I was a 19-year-old student at Bristol University. A condom broke and I became pregnant. Others in my situation at the time might have paid for an abortion at a private clinic, but my boyfriend and I couldn’t afford that, nor were we inclined to appeal to our parents, who were in the Far East and beyond easy communication.
I knew that I wasn’t ready to have a baby, so I tried jumping off tables (gingerly), taking scalding baths, drinking a lot of whisky. Then a friend gave us the name and number of a midwife in the docks who sometimes provided abortions to dockers’ wives whose husbands refused to use contraception. She was reluctant to get involved with a student, but just as reluctant to refuse. She wasn’t in it for the money. We paid £5 (perhaps the equivalent of £50 now?) which went into a pot to cover legal fees should she ever be arrested. (Private clinics charged, if I remember rightly, something like £200.) She came to the flat three times before the procedure was successful, and each time a lawyer accompanied her; the £5 fee in my case covered all three visits, which took place before the 12-week cut-off point, beyond which she would not go. On no account were we to divulge her name or contact details.
She was both professional and motherly, and the procedure was simple and safe, nothing to do with knitting needles or coat-hangers. She grated carbolic soap into a bowl, added boiling water, and when the mixture was cool enough, used a rubber douche to get it up against the cervix. That was it. The soap irritates the cervix, causing a miscarriage – some ten hours later. She told me to wait until the bleeding started before ringing the university surgery; I would then be taken to hospital, where they would anaesthetise me and perform a D&C (dilation and curettage, to make sure my womb was clear). At eleven weeks – my boyfriend by then back at university – it worked. A flatmate ran to the phone box in her dressing gown in the early hours; a university doctor came, asked me who had done it (clearly knowing that I wouldn’t say) and how, injected me with pethidine against labour pains, and rang for an ambulance. From that moment on, the word abortion was never used, not by the ambulance men (one of whom held my hand in the ambulance, asking about my boyfriend); not by the nurses in Casualty, nor by the orderly who wheeled me to theatre. I was asked how the procedure was done but not made to give a name. When I came to, I was in a ward of older women with a range of obstetric problems; it must have been obvious why I was there but no one criticised, no one even hinted at anything shameful. Everyone was kind. I was lucky.
The persistence in Northern Ireland of the provisions of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act regarding abortion is, as Joanna Biggs suggests, an anachronism. But although the Act did prescribe penal servitude for life (which in practice meant twenty years) as the maximum penalty for procuring an abortion, penal servitude was itself abolished in Northern Ireland in 1953 (four years after the rest of the United Kingdom) and replaced in existing statutes by equivalent terms of imprisonment.
Oscar Wilde was not, as Biggs states, imprisoned under the Act. Among its many provisions, it re-enacted a prohibition on ‘buggery’ dating from 1533, which ceased to be a capital offence, carrying instead a maximum life sentence of penal servitude and a ten-year minimum term. Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, an offence created by the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which, as it didn’t require proof of penetration, was easier to prosecute and for which he received the maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.