(Re)imagining the ‘backstreet’: Anti-abortion campaigning against decriminalisation in the UK

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The risk of death or serious injury from ‘backstreet abortions’ was an important narrative in the 20th century campaign to liberalise abortion in the UK. Since then, clinical developments have reduced the overall health risks of abortion, and international health organisations have been set up to provide cross-border, medically safe abortions to places where it is unlawful, offering advice and, where possible, supplying abortion pills. These changes mean that pro-choice campaigns in Europe have often moved away from the risks of ‘backstreet abortions’ as a central narrative when campaigning for abortion liberalisation. In contrast, in the UK, anti-abortion activists are increasingly using ideas about ‘backstreet abortions’ to resist further liberalisation. These claims can be seen to fit within a broader shift from morals to risk within moral regulation campaigns and build on anti-abortion messages framed as being ‘pro-women’, with anti-abortion activists claiming to be the ‘savers’ of women. Using a parliamentary debate as a case study, this article will illustrate these trends and show how the ‘backstreet’ metaphor within anti-abortion campaigns builds on three interconnected themes of ‘abortion-as-harmful’, ‘abortion industry’, and ‘abortion culture’. This article will argue that the anti-abortion movement’s adoption of risk-based narratives contains unresolved contradictions due to the underlying moral basis of their position. These are exacerbated by the need, in this case, to defend legislation that they fundamentally disagree with. Moreover, their attempts to construct identifiable ‘harms’ and vulnerable ‘victims’, which are components of moral regulation campaigns, are unlikely to be convincing in the context of widespread public support for abortion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)203-218
Number of pages16
JournalSociological research online
Issue number2
Early online date28 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

© Sage 2018. The final publication is available via Sage at https://doi.org/10.1177/1360780418811973


  • abortion
  • activism
  • decriminalisation
  • moral regulation
  • risk


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