Tony Garnett: A back street abortion killed my mom and changed my life

Does this make me an expert on abortion rights? No, but it makes me interested

December 1941. The second World War is raging and the bombs are dropped each night on Birmingham. I was five, going on six, and I thought it was fun. Down the air-raid shelter when the sirens sound- ed. Out in the morning to see if the house was still there. It must have been tense for the grown-ups, wondering if the Germans would invade and seeing their husbands and sons in uniform going off to fight.

But I was without a care in the world. I loved my mom. I worshipped my dad, although he was strict. I’d even started to like my little brother Peter. He was two.

Then it all ended.

My mom had become pregnant. They had their reasons, some of which died with them, for not wanting another baby. A local woman aborted the foetus. If you had the means and the contacts there was always a qualified doctor who would take the risk for tax-free cash. But if you were poor there was always a local woman who would do her amateur best.

In those days in England abortion was a criminal offence as well as a sin. My family were a God-loving, law-abiding respectable family, the men all hard-working, skilled tradesmen. So it must have been a big decision for mom and dad.

Something went wrong. My mom felt ill and it rapidly got worse. I was in bed with her the night she died. When dad was on night shift in the munitions factory she would let me sleep with her. I was awakened by her screaming and banging on the adjoining wall: my uncle Fred and auntie Janet lived next door. They came round and packed me off. My mom died before dad came home. Galloping septicaemia it was called. The next morning I saw dad cry almost hysterically. I’d never seen my dad cry. I didn’t think men did.

I was packed off to an aunt, mom’s sister. I saw dad once more, on Christmas Day. He came round and I sat on his knee for a few minutes. The he left. The day after New Year he led a hose from the gas, sealed up the windows and lay down with a bottle of Scotch. He didn’t finish it. The police had been interrogating him. He had committed a criminal offence as well as bringing shame on the family. But my guess is that he couldn’t bear the guilt. He worshipped my mom. In his suicide note he said that he was going to try to find her.

I was never told anything. I didn’t know what had happened except that my life seemed over. My mom and dad had disappeared. My aunt and uncle took me in. We were a close family. But I wanted my mom.


Does this make me an expert on abortion rights? No, but it makes me interested. Have these events made me partisan one way or the other? No. In fact the more I’ve thought about it, and believe me I’ve thought about it in detail for many years, the more I’ve come to see it as a complex, nuanced, deeply important question with no easy answers. The dilemmas posed go to the core of our sense of who we are as humans. I therefore regret the tone of much of the debate. I appreciate that people feel strongly. But in generating more heat than light, the debate crudely caricatures both sides. In truth, each side grapples with the same ethical question, each side cares deeply about human life and each side ought to know that within their solution lies moral danger to human life.

One side cares about the mother rather than the foetus. If abortion had been legal, my mom would have lived, possibly to have had more children when times improved. But you could also say another baby might have come into a loving family. That was my grandma’s opinion. What’s another baby? They’d have looked after it together. She had borne and brought up 12, after all, so might be considered an expert in the matter.

The other side cares not just about the foetus, which brings up complex considerations about just when life starts, but the more important one of the sanctity of human life. Rather like the question of assisted dying, they make the thin-end-of- the-wedge argument. Although proclaimed most passionately by religious devotees, it is not the same as the injunction against suicide, which is thought by them to be a sin, God being the only power to give life and take it away. This is, for them, the taking away of the potential for life from an infant or a potential infant.

So where might this lead, they ask? Medics for years have surreptitiously snuffed out the lives of badly handicapped infants soon after birth, or at least not tried too hard to maintain life in infants whose life would be seriously be compromised. Where might this stop? The practices of the Nazis resonate their inhuman ugliness still.

Some women tell me to butt out. I’m a man. It’s not my business. So where do I stand? I claim it is my business because I am human. If I am against abortion I should have the right to try to prevent any abortion. If I am for abortion, I should allow each pregnant woman to make up her mind, even if I am the potential father. But I might still be allowed an opinion.

I think abortion should be legal and available under safe, expert conditions to preserve the lives of women. It should be accompanied by sex education in schools and the ready availability of contraceptives and the morning-after pill.

Distressing experience

Women tell me that abortion is a distressing experience. It should not be undertaken lightly as just another contraceptive. This is a compromise. We live in an age when sex is enjoyed freely. Each individual now must negotiate the moral consequence of that for himself and herself. That is a fact we either live with gladly or sadly. But it is a fact.

But that does not dissolve the ethical dangers. Those opposed to abortion have an unbending wish to preserve the idea of the sacred. They are sometimes unchristian in their militancy but they are right to emphasise that this is a profound ethical point. If human life is not sacred, what is?

Our humanity depends on the rest of us taking this seriously.

My mom's death profoundly changed my life. It was the reason that I fought for Nell Dunn's Up the Junction to be filmed and why I fought to get it to the public. In it the character Ruby has a backstreet abortion. We showed it. I wanted no one else to suffer my mom's fate.

The BBC transmitted it as David Steel’s Bill to legalise abortion was going through parliament. I felt I’d honoured my mom.

I loved her and still missed her.

Tony Garnett is a film and television producer, His films include Kes, Cathy Come Home, Up the Junction and This Life. His memoir, The Day the Music Died, has just been published