On 14th June 1938 Aleck Bourne (1886 - 1974), a prominent gynaecologist, was arrested after performing a termination of pregnancy, without fee, at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington. The patient, a 14 year old girl, had been raped by five off duty soldiers from the Royal Horseguards in a London barracks. St Thomas’ was said to have sent her away on the grounds that she might be carrying a future Prime Minister.

The evidence of rape and the distress of the patient were clear. Bourne, though fully aware that a plea of danger to life would be hard to substantiate in court, decided that termination of the pregnancy was amply justified because of risk to the physical and mental health of the patient. Having operated, he quite deliberately informed the police because he felt the urgent need for a test case in the courts of law. Tried at the Central Criminal Court in July 1938, he was acquitted and his actions were later described by The Lancet as “an example of disinterested conduct in consonance with the highest traditions of the profession”.

The judge said that “If the doctor is of opinion on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge, that the probable consequences of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical and mental wreck, the jury are quite entitled to take the view that the doctor, who under these circumstances and in that honest belief, operates, is operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother.” Bourne was strongly opposed to abortion for purely social and trivial indications, which makes his principled stand all the more impressive.

His action eased the situation for many women and the ethical dilemma for many doctors, and was a substantial step on the path to the Abortion Act passed some 30 years later.

See: Obituary British Medical Journal 11 January 1975

For a fuller account of health history (though not this episode), see www.nhshistory.net.