On Friday 27 October 2023 at Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh, our chair Jennifer Buchan delivered the opening remarks for our annual conference, on the future of abortion rights in Scotland. We are delighted to publish Jennifer’s speech here. In it, she explores the history of women’s struggles for reproductive rights alongside other battles for equal rights, in Scotland and beyond.
Good morning everyone, and a very warm welcome to you all, to Edinburgh, and to the oldest college of surgeons in the world. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was founded in 1505. And it was in 1892, a mere 387 years later, that women were permitted to study in the Royal College. But obviously, they were allowed not sit the formal exams alongside the men. It wasn’t until 1910 that a woman, Dossibai Patell, became a member of this Royal College of England. The following year, in 1911, Eleanor Davis-Colley became the first woman to be admitted as a full Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
It is hard to imagine the fight that these women had against the establishment. During the time that they petitioned and campaigned women in this country weren’t even allowed to vote. It wasn’t until 1928 that women were permitted to take part in the country’s democratic process.
It is hard to imagine the fight that these women had against the establishment, as during the time that they petitioned and campaigned, women in this country were not even allowed to vote.Jennifer Buchan, Humanist Society CEO
At the same time women struggled greatly with a whole range of health issues, not least getting pregnant. Or, more accurately, not getting pregnant. Young pregnant women were rushed into marriage, given little or no choice because of the morality dictated at the time. Some healthy teenage girls from affluent families were admitted to psychiatric hospitals because as unmarried and pregnant they were an embarrassment to their families. In the 1920s-30s they could be deemed immoral and therefore insane. These young women were committed to an asylum on the advice of a clergyman and the family GP. After giving birth and having their babies removed many of these women spent their entire adult lives locked away.
In 1961 the contraceptive pill was made available in the UK. But it was only prescribed to married women until 1969. In 1967 abortion was decriminalised in this country but is still not legal. It had to be, and still has to be, performed in accordance with the legislation. This means that if any woman approaches an unsympathetic doctor the chances of her being referred for a medical abortion are greatly reduced. 1968, the year I was born, was the year that the most forced adoptions in the UK was recorded. Women gave birth in hospital or in mother-and-baby homes and their children were removed and adopted into other families without their consent.
Here we are, the year after the Roe vs Wade decision did not stay done. It’s a backwards step which has frightening implications for every single one of us and the women who follow us.Jennifer Buchan
Following the Roe vs Wade case in 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled that the constitution of the United States generally protected the right to have an abortion. 16 years after the case, I was in Massachusetts, and I attended a lecture by the Jane Roe lawyers, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington. Their victory was seen as the finishing line, and an irreversible step forward for women’s rights. Sarah Weddington actually said, on many occasions, “It is done now, and for as long as the US is the US, it will stay done.” And here we are, the year after the Roe vs Wade decision did not stay done. It’s a backwards step which has frightening implications for every single one of us and the women who follow us.
All through history women have had to fight for their rights, including their rights to education. And up until 1928 we were told that there was no need for us to vote as our thoughts and opinions could be conveyed through the votes of our fathers or husbands. Women have been vilified because of other people’s perception of our individual morality. We, and our bodies, are still being used as political pawns.
Women have been vilified because of other people’s perception of our individual morality. We, and our bodies, are still being used as political pawns.Jennifer Buchan
We have had to fight, and we are still fighting, to be provided with essential healthcare deemed fully legal in this country. We are also fighting to ensure safe and harassment-free access to that healthcare. It is exhausting but each new generation takes up that fight.
Abortions have always happened, and abortions will always happen, whether they are conducted in sterile conditions by qualified practitioners or not. That’s why Humanist Society Scotland will always stand shoulder to shoulder with our partner organisations and our political allies to fight for the rights of all women to have unhindered access to safe healthcare.
Photos by Jack Donaghy.
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