‘In Pursuit of a Wicked Trade’: The Practices and Politics of the Backstreet Abortionist, 1900-1967

5 March 2012, 17:00 - 18:00

Centre for Family Research, Room 606

Dr Emma Jones (University of Manchester)


Before the legalisation of abortion in 1967, a significant proportion of abortions were conducted illegally by lay abortionists rather than qualified medical personnel.

Placing the figure of the backstreet abortionist within a 'makeshift economy', I begin by exploring the relationship between their illegal activities and the life cycle, and their place against backgrounds of social class and gender. Exploring a range of practitioners from the amateur operator to the midwife-abortionist, I reveal how assisting in the procurement of abortion often ran parallel to more legitimate means of making a living. While there were those who made a profit, I suggest that performing abortion was rarely a full-time occupation. For some it provided a necessary supplement to a low or dwindling income, while for others it was done in kind or for no material reward.

The medical profession played a central role in shaping the legal control of the abortion marketplace in England between 1900 and 1967, vilifying lay abortionists and irregular members of their own profession as unqualified, dangerous, unscrupulous and corrupt. While some lay abortionists conformed to this stereotype, I uncover evidence that points to the relative safety, skill and medical competence of at least some operators, while at the same time raising questions over the safety of abortions performed by qualified medical practitioners.

In so analysing the parallels and contradictions between the available empirical evidence and contemporary representations of 'backstreet' abortionists, their methods and motivations, I explore change over time in the policing and cultural representation of the backstreet abortionist. I suggest that by the post-war period a heightened sense of the perceived dangers of lay practitioners was shaping both public opinion and the wider politics of abortion law and reform.


 

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Part of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Reproduction Forum.
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