“It’s just not a pleasant thing, is it – abortion?” As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act – the piece of legislation governing the provision of abortion in England, Wales and Scotland – Anne Robinson is considering the stigma and taboo that still surrounds the issue. Despite the fact that one in three women in the UK will have an abortion, we often remain tight-lipped about it. Pro-choice campaigners and doctors and ordinary women will say that it’s a medical issue, plain and simple, and while that’s undoubtedly true, it also seems true that abortion throws up complicated – and often conflicting – emotions. Shame, regret, sadness. Those feelings can exist alongside relief and a sense of having done what’s right. “I don’t want to blame women [for the stigma], but we haven’t talked about it!” says Robinson. “I think inside almost every woman is a sort of mother … It’s hard to reconcile that you’re pro-choice with the personal feelings of going through an abortion. You might feel sad about your own abortion, but still be pro-choice.”
Robinson is addressing our complicated attitudes to abortion in a new BBC documentary, Abortion On Trial, which examines whether the 50-year-old legislation is fit for purpose and investigates the prospect of the complete decriminalisation of abortion, a move that looks ever more likely. Alongside the history – Robinson covered the introduction of the Act as a young reporter on Fleet Street in the 1960s, so is perfectly poised to look back on the era – and the medical evidence provided by visiting experts, the show examines the British public’s attitude to abortion. There are poll results outlining the country’s views on abortion, which Robinson explains to the audience with the help of an iPad, but, much more interestingly, there are nine people – eight women who have had abortions and one man who is vehemently anti-choice – living in Anne Robinson’s country house for the weekend to hammer out the trickier aspects of abortion provision: time limits; abortions based on disability; sex-selective abortions; repeat abortions.
“I’ve been describing it as cross between Big Brother and Panorama,” Robinson tells me, in that characteristic tone of hers – mirthful with added bite.
BBC 2's Abortion On Trial
From the outset, it was clear that she would have to open up about her own experience of abortion if she was going to demand honesty and emotional vulnerability from the show’s participants. So, she told a story she had never addressed on camera before: the story of the abortion she had as a young, recently married woman just a year after the Abortion Act was introduced. “I genuinely felt like there was no way I could ask women to come to my home and not talk about myself,” she explains. Now, almost 50 years later, she expresses sadness about the situation, stopping short of the word “regret”. “I have a degree of shame about it,” she says. “With a daughter and grandchildren, it seems more monstrous than it did at the time. [In 1968], with my frightened, young, doomed head at the time, it seemed like good decision – it doesn’t rest happily with me.”
Her own experience, however, has never influenced her wider views on the subject. “No one is pro-abortion – what they are is pro a woman’s right to choose,” she says firmly.
As you might expect of a show fronted by Robinson, there are vigorous debates – “safe spaces” aren’t something she particularly values. Watching a preview of the show made me feel uncomfortable in places – the views of an anti-choice man called Lee are given great weight and he is shown debating abortion with women who were visibly upset – but Robinson seems to revel in that conflict. And, crucially, she’s able to use it to point up intellectual inadequacies and holes in flimsy arguments.
“I did feel bad when it just made things worse,” she says of the conflict on the show. “But I suppose, because Lee’s [anti-choice] opinions were so off the wall, I kept vainly hoping that he’d come down to earth.”
The one thing that absolutely needs to be looked at is non-surgical abortions. I mean it’s very convenient for the NHS to have a pill, but there’s no aftercare
Overall, the nine people in the house are pro-choice; only Lee and a woman called Rachel, who had two abortions before rediscovering her Catholic faith, are staunchly anti-abortion. Robinson believes that that split roughly reflects UK attitudes. She, like the rest of us, has seen Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments about abortion and is aware of the anti-choice protesters who intimidate women outside clinics, but she isn’t concerned. “I think there’s a very noisy movement that is threatening us,” she concedes. “But I don’t think it will come to banning abortion. In the UK, I do believe that we will a) go on having abortions and b) in 10 years’ time, it will have been decriminalised full-stop. That’s my sense.”
Alongside a decriminalisation of abortion – whereby laws dating to Victorian times that could see a woman jailed for life for having an abortion would be scrapped, and abortion would become a solely medical rather than criminal issue – she would like to see increased support for those who have an abortion using pills.
“The one thing that absolutely needs to be looked at is non-surgical abortions. I mean it’s very convenient for the NHS to have a pill but there’s no aftercare.”
During the filming of the show, she discovered the prevalence of the medical abortion – abortions brought about though Mifepristone and Misoprostol, the so-called abortion pill – as women told their stories of bleeding and passing huge clots and even foetuses on buses and in public toilets. She was horrified. “It’s not just the pain and distress of a miscarriage depending on how pregnant you are – there is also the very real possibility that you are going to go down into the black dooms afterwards. So, the NHS is insisting you take the pill there – which takes five minutes – but it’s not in the least bit concerned about your mental state.”
While we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act, there is one glaring problem, of course: the fact that the Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, and abortion is still illegal under most circumstances in those places. Robinson admits to only discovering this recently, but is incensed by the religious conservatism that still governs the lives of some UK women.
As someone who covered the introduction of the Abortion Act in the 1960s, what does she think needs to happen in Northern Ireland?
She sighs. “In practical terms, it’s about time. It’s about waiting.”
Abortion On Trial is on BBC Two at 9pm tonight