'The trial the world is watching': The 1972 prosecution of derk crichton and james watts, abortion, and the regulation of the medical profession in apartheid South Africa

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Abstract

After its formation in 1910 as a self-governing dominion within the British empire, the Union of South Africa followed a combination of English and Roman-Dutch common laws on abortion that decreed the procedure permissible only when necessary to save a woman's life. The government continued doing so after South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1961. In 1972 a sensational trial took place in the South African Supreme Court that for weeks placed clandestine abortion on the front pages of the country's newspapers. Two men, one an eminent doctor and the other a self-taught abortionist, were charged with conspiring to perform illegal abortions on twenty-six white teenagers and young unmarried women. The prosecution of Dr Derk Crichton and James Watts occurred while the National Party government was in the process of drafting abortion legislation and was perceived by legal experts as another test of the judiciary's stance on the common law on abortion. The trial was mainly intended to regulate the medical profession and ensure doctors ceased helping young white women evade their 'duty' to procreate within marriage. Ultimately, the event encapsulated a great deal about elites' attempt to buttress apartheid culture and is significant for, among other reasons, contributing to the production of South Africa's extremely restrictive Abortion and Sterilisation Act (1975).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)210-229
Number of pages20
JournalMedical History
Volume58
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Nursing(all)
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • History

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