Meet the Book Author: The Abortion Act 1967: a Biography of a UK Law

Sally Sheldon, Bristol Law School and University of Technology Sydney

Sally Sheldon, Bristol Law School and University of Technology Sydney, Gayle Davis, University of Edinburgh, Jane O’Neill, University of Edinburgh, Clare Parker, University of Adelaide

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Sally Sheldon about The Abortion Act 1967: a Biography of a UK Law, which she wrote with Gayle Davis, Jane O’Neill and Clare Parker, which was published in November 2022 in Cambridge University Press’ Law in Context series.

What is the book about? 

Every law has a biography but the biography of the Abortion Act 1967 is perhaps more interesting than most.  The Act has been variously understood as a landmark measure of public health and humanity or a monstrous denial of God’s will; as a key moment in the path towards female equality and social justice or a eugenicist, profit-driven betrayal of women and their unborn children; and as a set of inadequate but necessary safeguards or an anachronistic artefact of misogyny and medical paternalism.  The Act has been an ongoing focus of significant public protest, subject to multiple court challenges, and repeatedly attacked in Parliament.  It is possibly the most contested law in UK parliamentary history. 

Our story begins at the moment that the Abortion Act came into effect, marking the beginning of a furious struggle over how it should be understood and implemented that continues more than five decades on.  We trace how the Act’s meaning was forged through the efforts of an evolving cast of actors, whose struggles occurred against a backdrop of broader social and cultural changes that both shaped and were shaped by the Act.  Our biography of the Abortion Act is necessarily also the story of changing gender and familial norms; the declining authority of the church in framing moral debates and a corresponding rise in belief in science as a way of understanding and ordering reality; the growth of the disability rights movement; shifts in medical practices and technologies within evolving institutional settings; and changing political ideologies.  As Virginia Woolf put it, biography must offer the story of the stream as well as that of the fish.  Our biography of the Abortion Act aims to offer a window onto a rapidly evolving UK.

Why did we write it? 

When I first encountered the Abortion Act as an undergraduate student, I was shocked to discover that the deeply personal decision of whether or not to continue a pregnancy formally belonged to two doctors rather than the pregnant person herself. However, I also learnt that the reality of access to abortion services was very different than what might be expected from studying the written law.  This offered a first, highly formative encounter with the gap between law ‘on the books’ and law ‘in action’, which deepened and entrenched my commitments as both a feminist and socio-legal scholar.  

I pursued this interest in my PhD, which subsequently became my first book.  However, that only served to heighten my interest in an apparent paradox: while the text of the highly restrictive regulatory framework laid down in the Abortion Act has remained largely unaltered for more than five decades, the reality of access to abortion services had been transformed over that period, with almost all legal abortions for resident women now NHS-funded and provided largely on request (if not quite ‘on demand’).    How is that possible?

How did we go about doing this research?

Answering this question required historical as well as socio-legal research so I was delighted when the social and medical historian, Gayle Davis, agreed to collaborate.  We were then lucky enough to secure AHRC funding, allowing us to enlist the support of two excellent postdoctoral historical researchers, Clare Parker and Jane O’Neill.  Clare and Jane spent around a year tracking down sources in a large number of archives, and Jane also conducted interviews with campaigners, service providers, policy-makers and doctors who had experience of working with the Act.

The book, authored by the four of us, is the major output of that research.  It uses ‘biography’ as a prompt to keep sight of the twin facets of any law: that its text is shaped by – and in a sense fossilises – a specific set of historically contingent assumptions about the world yet can only take effect through interpretation, an activity inevitably shaped by awareness of contemporary, continually evolving values and realities.  A biographical approach emphasises that a law is a living thing that cannot be fully understood at just one moment in its existence: rather, it must be studied as a continuing and evolving subject rooted in shifting social and cultural landscapes, and always in the process of accumulating meaning.  We found this approach – which explores the complex, dynamic interrelationships between law and society as they evolve over time – to be enormously productive, and hope that it has much to offer other socio-legal scholars.

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