Approaching an Archive – Part Five; Timeline of the Scottish Abortion Campaign from 1990-2018
Welcome to the final instalment of Approaching an Archive – a series of blog posts that document my journey as a first time researcher exploring the Scottish Abortion Campaign’s (SAC) archive material held by Glasgow Women’s Library.
The full timeline will be available for exploration on Prezi once I find the time to digitise my work, as an independent project out with the requirements of my placement, but this last entry will focus on a few important campaign highlights, as well as what I’ve learnt from my time in the GWL archive.
Devolution: While the SAC began mobilising long before any referendums were held on Scottish devolution, the prospect of reopening the Scottish parliament emboldened the campaign’s effort to minimise the expense and difficulty for women who had been forced to travel to England for safe abortions. So significant was this political shift that the one of the first boxes marked SAC within the archive holds a copy of the Scotland Act 1998. An amendment to the devolved powers of Scotland with the 2016 Scotland Act has since devolved abortion law to the Scottish Parliament’s jurisdiction, allowing Scotland to become the first region in the UK to allow women to take the abortion pill in the comfort and safety of their own homes, thus giving women greater control over the treatment and minimising the trauma of the procedure.
Brook centre: The SAC’s support and defence of Brook centres across the country was a key theme in many of the newspaper reports and personal letters I found while perusing the latter half of the archive, but most notably was the 1992 opening of the first Northern Irish Brook clinic amidst condemnation by Iain Paisley and the DUP. The Brook centres in Lothian and Belfast would eventually be crucial in dealing with the fallout of the lack of education for men with regards to sexual health and STDs, as boys were found to be accessing the clinic with increasing numbers as it was revealed that they were not receiving the same care and education from their parents and schools as their female counterparts. This lead to many young men taking sexual risks before seeking health advise because they believed, having been told it was so by their fathers, that they were expected to just ‘get on with it.’ Similarly, many young girls who would visit the clinics would admit that they too felt too young at the time when they lost their virginity, but had no alternative to education other than learning as they went.
Mifepristone: Also known as RU-486, it was a vital development in the abortion process, and was a topic of conversation that was followed closely by the SAC. It increased the safety of the procedure for women, and would pave the way for the 2016 decision to allow women to take the pill in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
Irish-Scottish solidarity: The Irish and Scottish abortion campaigns have been closely linked from the start, and while this material is not covered by the archive, it’s an important relationship that has just become more intertwined. For the last few years the ‘repeal the 8th’ movement in Ireland has been campaigning to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution – which equates the life of a foetus to the life of a woman, except in circumstances were the life of the woman is at risk, and which violates an Irish woman’s right to body autonomy. It has been condemned by the movement as draconian, and by the UN as a cruel and inhumane violation of human rights, particularly because anyone who has been found illegally procuring an abortion or inducing a miscarriage in Ireland can receive a prison sentence equal to or greater than a sentence issues for rape. A new coalition has been founded by the Scottish and Irish abortion campaigns that aims to further the ‘repeal the 8th’ movement’s efforts, but also to force Northern Ireland to recognise the 1967 abortion act, as it is currently the only region in the UK to refuse to do so.
Having spent time among the shelves in the archive I’ve learnt a few valuable lessons about archiving. Firstly, it’s not always easy to see the immediate connections between materials, and you can often be five files deep before something clicks and you begin to see patterns in documents. Secondly, the sheer volume of material, while rich in its diversity, is often overwhelming when trying to look for specific dates or publications, and so I regularly adjusted my normally sequential strategy to go hunting for boxes out of order. Once I stopped trying to see everything, I began to see specific details I might have missed if I’d been trying to work through the archive in order. I’ve learnt a lot about abortion and women’s sexual health from my time here, and I now have a far greater understanding of the struggles my own country has faced in obtaining services like the Brook clinic, having not had access to these documents while I was studying at home. What surprised me most of all was just how intertwined the Scottish and Northern Irish/Irish abortion campaign efforts were, and it’s heartening to see that relationship continue today. For now, it’s time to hang up my keys and bid farewell to the treasure trove I’ve had the pleasure of working in for the last twelve weeks. I’ve got another thesis to write and another mammoth research project to undertake, but I hope this isn’t the last I see of the Women’s Library and its wonderful archive.
That’s all from me, Phoebe x
Want to see the archive for yourself? Good news! The materials are available for public access, as long as you contact the library ahead of time and let them know what you’re looking for. You can also search the archive directory and see if anything takes your fancy!