Who had abortions
Both married and single women sought abortions. Historians have suggested that in the 1920s and 1930s, married women would try to self-abort, while single women were more likely to go to an abortionist.
Who provided abortions
Those providing abortions were sometimes skilled: a maternity nurse, a doctor or a chemist. But many had no medical training – money could be made from desperate women, who, regarded as accomplices to a crime, would not go to the police.
Back-street operators were often spoken of as dirty, incompetent and unsafe. Despite this, many illegal abortions were successful. A great deal of money could be made, and word of mouth would not have favoured those whose patients remained pregnant, or ended up in hospital or dead.
The cost of abortion depended on who was involved, the methods used, and how much a woman could pay. The range was wide. In the mid-1930s, Annie Aves carried out 183 abortions and earned £2,232 in 18 months, averaging £12 for each abortion (around $1,400 in 2018 terms). In the early 1940s an abortion carried out by a doctor could cost as much as £100 (around $8,600 in 2018 terms).
Home and back-street methods
Many women desperate to end a pregnancy would first try to do so at home. Attempts to induce miscarriage included vigorous and excessive exercise, jumping off tables, falling down stairs, taking hot baths while drinking half a bottle of gin, and taking laxatives.
In an attempt to physically dislodge the foetus, some women would insert knitting needles, crochet hooks, sharpened pencils or blunted meat skewers into their womb. Another method was injecting fluids (iodine, glycerine or disinfectant) into the uterus using catheters and syringes. Other methods were also used by abortionists, including metallic poisons, quinine, ergot or one of the pills marketed as ‘regulators‘.
The methods were often ineffective and many of them were dangerous. Large amounts of metallic poisons or quinine could kill the woman, and ergot could cause gangrene and mental disturbance. Objects inserted into the uterus could tear it and other internal organs. Pumping air into the womb could cause blocked blood vessels.
The methods used by doctors varied, but the most common from the 19th century was dilation and curettage. This involved opening the cervix (neck of the womb) and scraping out the contents. Doctors were also known to use saline infusions (which provoked a painful labour) and Caesarean sections.