Ella’s Student Placement; Edinburgh Women’s Liberation and the Fight for Reproductive Rights

We carry on our blogs on the Edinburgh Women’s Centre Archive by delving into the contentious issue of reproductive rights. As one of its founding demands passed at the 1971 national conference in Skegness, ‘free contraception and abortion on demand’ was a fundamental aspect of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In 1975, MP James White sought to limit women’s control over their own body, moving to restrict the reasons a woman could get an abortion. In response, the WLM formed the National Abortion Campaign, marking a new stage in their struggle for bodily autonomy.

The NAC were active throughout the UK. The Archive holds material ranging from scientific papers and demonstration posters to information bulletins, and NAC newsletters. The Edinburgh branch played their own important role, lobbying MPs, writing to trade unions, organising public demonstrations, and providing support and information to women who needed it.  

newspaper headline reading ‘Abortion Show Sets Out to Shock’
Newspaper headline from an article by Don Mackay, on the Edinburgh Abortion Campaign’s public exhibition, 29th May 1975
The introductory paragraph to a newspaper article, reading that the public exhibition was ‘a show meant to horrify’ and a ‘shock show’
Newspaper clipping from an article by Don Mackay, on the Edinburgh Abortion Campaign’s public exhibition, 29th May 1975

What I found of most interest in the Centre’s Archive were the accounts of direct action carried out by the group. I have picked out two newspaper cuttings on such activities, important in that they illustrate the group’s success in gaining media attention. The first reports a public exhibition that was designed to illustrate the horrors of backstreet abortions, entitled “Legal Abortion, or This”. This aligned with the group’s emphasis on the fact that abortions took place whether they were legal or not; the difference was between receiving treatment from trained professionals or forcing women to use potentially life-threatening methods. The exhibition was moved from shopping centres to conferences to trade union strikes. In an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s claim, the labelling of it as a “shock show” by reporter Don Mackay, illustrates the group’s aim of demonstrating the extreme dangers of such abortions clearly worked.

black and white photograph showing a group of around 10 individuals holding signs reading ‘whose life? The unborn or the living’ and ‘Edinburgh Abortion Campaign’.
Photograph from the ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper, featuring pro-abortion demonstrators outside Canongate Kirk, January 1976

A second method of direct action used by the group was organising public demonstrations to coincide with those of SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). Here, we can see such an event taking place at Canongate Kirk in January 1976. Edinburgh Abortion Campaign organised a silent protest while supporters of SPUC held a service inside. The group were determined to ensure anti-abortionists were not the only ones spreading their message. If anti-abortionists were set on placing restrictions on female agency, Edinburgh Women’s Liberation would be there to challenge them.

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