Today it is exactly 44 years since the 1967 Abortion Act came into effect. Since 27th April 1968, women in Scotland, England and Wales have had the right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy, or whether to safely and legally end it.

Abortion is not a new invention; there are records of its use in ancient Egypt, and until the 19th Century, both the British government and the Catholic Church believed that it was acceptable to perform an abortion during the early stages of pregnancy. When abortion was banned, it didn’t mean that women stopped trying to terminate their pregnancies, it just meant that abortions could only be obtained in illegal, and often dangerous, circumstances.

Research by the World Health Organisation shows that the abortion rate is often higher in countries where there are strict legal restrictions on the procedure, than in those where there are relatively few legal barriers. Around the world, an estimated 21.6 million unsafe, illegal abortions are carried out every year. As a result, 8.5 million women experience complications from unsafe abortions, and 47,000 of them will die.
Until 1968, women in Scotland, England, and Wales died or suffered permanent injury because they could not obtain a safe, legal abortion from a trained medical professional. Instead, they used knitting needles, or poisons, or carbolic soap, or they threw themselves down the stairs. When abortion was illegal, it caused 15% of pregnancy-related deaths, but now that safe abortions are provided by the NHS, complications are extremely rare.

Despite the 1967 Act, abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Women from Northern Ireland are entitled to every other type of treatment that the NHS provides, but in order to get an abortion, they must travel to England and pay up to £2000 to have the procedure in a private clinic. Abortion is also illegal in the Republic of Ireland, even when a woman’s health is at risk, or the foetus has severe abnormalities which mean it would be unable to survive outside the womb.

By accepting that some women will decide to terminate a pregnancy, our laws allow the provision of essential, compassionate medical treatment. However, as we are increasingly being reminded, not everyone agrees that a woman should have the right to make decisions about her own body. On Saturday, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) will mark the anniversary of the life-saving Abortion Act with anti-abortion vigils in towns and cities across the UK.

SPUC are known for their opposition to abortion, certain forms of contraception, pre-natal testing, IVF, and the use of foetal cells in medical research, but also for distributing publicity materials which contain wildly inaccurate information. They are part of a backlash against a woman’s right to choose which has become more visible in recent months; earlier this year SPUC endorsed a campaign called “40 Days For Life”, which harassed and filmed women entering abortion clinics in English cities.

But pro-choice activists are fighting back, with counter-demonstrations planned in several cities – including one in Edinburgh which I’ve helped to organise. We’re not doing this because we think that we’ll change the anti-abortion campaigners’ minds – that’s about as likely as them persuading us to switch sides – but because we think it’s important to show everyone else that they are not the majority. We will be there on Saturday to show that we support women who have made the decision to have an abortion, and to celebrate the fact that, for the past 44 years, they have not had to risk death, infertility, or prison to do so.

So happy birthday, legal abortion, and many happy returns.