Heroine of the back streets?

Submitted by Anon on 9 February, 2005 - 6:42

Vicki Morris reviews Vera Drake, directed by Mike Leigh

Vera Drake is rather a slow film but interesting enough to awaken or revive interest in the history and the future of abortion rights — it sent me scurrying to the history books.

It is also topical — Tony Blair has mooted reducing the time limit for abortions from 24 to 22 weeks. David Steel, the Liberal politician who sponsored the 1967 Abortion Act, supports such a reduction, although he favours balancing this with making abortion available “on demand” up to 13 weeks. Currently the consent of two doctors is needed before a woman may have an abortion.

The film is a fictional tale of a working-class abortionist in the 1950s, and what happens to her when one of the women she “helps” nearly dies from septicaemia.

Vera, of course, is a “back street” abortionist. Performing the procedure was then punishable by life imprisonment. It would not become relatively easily, safely and legally available, including on the NHS, until 1968.

The lead-in to the first abortion in the film is stomach turning, because most of us have heard how the preferred tool of the trade was a knitting needle. Vera’s method, in contrast, seems reassuringly simple and ungory — though, if I ever had to, I wouldn’t like to give it a go.

Vera’s fate and that of the girls she helps are contrasted — though not with a great deal of class venom — with that of rich girls who have “got themselves in trouble”.

One posh girl shows a cavalier attitude to unwanted pregnancy, but another posh girl is trying to terminate a pregnancy that resulted after she was raped. Instead of a furtive and hasty operation performed on their own beds by Vera with soap flakes, syringe and disinfectant, the posh women have discreet consultations with sympathetic doctors and psychiatrists.

They pay £150, pack their vanity cases and go away for “a weekend in the country”, stay in nursing homes, and are attended by polite nurses in starched uniforms.

They are not even breaking the law. A test case in the late 1930s had conceded the right to abortion before 28 weeks if it could be proved that a woman’s mental or physical health was endangered to the extent that she might die by her proceeding with pregnancy. But women needed the say-so of a sympathetic psychiatrist if they wanted to go down this route, and it was only rich women who could pay for the services of such a psychiatrist.

The vast majority of women faced with an unwanted pregnancy either reconciled themselves to it, had their baby adopted, or resorted to a woman like Vera Drake.

Each of the women that has an abortion in the film is one of the “types” that we hear about now whenever a change is proposed in abortion legislation. There are good and bad types, of course, depending on whether it is an anti-abortionist or a pro-choice campaigner that is speaking.

Leigh’s candidates for abortion are not all as pure as the driven snow.

Alongside the woman with too many children to feed, whose husband “can’t control himself” — a “deserving” case — there is a woman who has got pregnant by a man not her husband. She, interestingly, appears the most racked with guilt about what she is about to do — not such an undeserving case, then?

It is not director Mike Leigh who is distinguishing between “good” women and “bad” women, I think. He is reflecting the way society thinks about abortion, and who, if anyone, deserves one.

He does not judge the women any more than Vera does; Vera, generally a very meek woman, argues forcefully that they all need “help”.

There is one sour note in this film. Vera, to add to her many virtues, is anti-racist. Which makes it odd that the one set of genitalia you nearly get to peer up during the film belongs to the one black character.

As you watch all the abortions, you wait queasily for the one that will go wrong. Inevitably, one must. (It is a surprise that there is only one!) That is why “no return to the back streets!” is a cry for campaigners when they defend free, legal abortion provision.

According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide at least 80,000 women die each year as a result of unsafe abortions.

Vera emerges as a hero, performing this public service for no money. But her role will be usurped by the state a few years later — and thank goodness for that!

Or should we go all misty-eyed about the demise of the ancient and honourable art — right up there with midwifery and herbalism — of terminating pregnancies, and see in this history another example of skilled craftswomen losing power to the state and the male-dominated medical profession?

Until abortion became respectable — there were 181,600 abortions performed in the UK in 2003 — women like Vera were criminalised.

There was something rather 10 Rillington Place about the setting in this film and John Christie-ish about the Vera Drake character. Her flat, done out in 1950s austerity drab, probably didn’t need to be quite so sombre. I don’t think Leigh intended the viewer to see things this way. Perhaps I was projecting my own anxieties onto the screen.

At one point Vera’s disapproving son wonders how many abortions Vera has performed in her roughly 20-year career — it might have been hundreds!

If you accept Leigh’s basic case, and think Vera was performing a service to humanity, you must applaud Vera’s achievement.

If you are a “right to life” anti-abortionist, and you aren’t persuaded by the argument made in this film, you will see Vera Drake and real-life women like her as no better than Doctor Harold Shipman!

In fact, of course, no one, not even the most ardent pro-choicer, cheers at a high number of abortions.

A case in point is the Soviet Union under late-period Stalinism. After it was re-legalised in 1955, abortion became the main method of birth control in the Soviet Union. This state of affairs demonstrated a lack of respect for women’s rights — the rights of access to contraception and sex education — rather than a commitment to women’s equality.

What we should always campaign for, alongside ready access to safe, legal abortions for those women who want or need them, is adequate contraception provision, a social structure that can support women who decide to keep a baby that they had not planned, and education of boys and girls so that women are empowered to negotiate sex with male partners so that it is enjoyable for both of them, and only ends in a pregnancy when that is what they both want.

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