Sheila Abdulla

Socialist and feminist

This obituary by Wadja Abdullah, Sheila’s daughter, appeared in the Guardian on 23 September 2020.

My mother, Sheila Abdullah, who has died aged 82 from cancer, was a GP and a socialist feminist. She was involved in the start of the women’s liberation movement in Liverpool in the 1960s and fought for women’s control over their bodies, and their right to free contraception and abortion on demand.

Sheila was born in Leeds to Leonard Marshall, a joiner, and Nellie (nee Taylor), who worked in a laundry. She attended Aireborough grammar school in Guiseley, Leeds, and was the first person in her family to go to university. Studying medicine at Sheffield University, she met Mohamed Abdullah, a postgraduate student from Iraq, and they were married in 1959. After qualifying she moved to Liverpool to work as a GP in a single-handed practice in the inner city, combining raising four children with a full-time job.

She was instrumental in expanding family planning services in Liverpool, volunteering at the Brook Advisory Centre for young people. Her experience of seeing women die from backstreet abortions made her a passionate defender of abortion rights through the Merseyside Abortion Campaign. Around this time Sheila was part of the birth of the women’s liberation movement, both locally and also taking part in the first national conference held in Oxford in 1970.

Sheila later joined Princes Park health centre in Toxteth. This was a large practice in one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool and was pioneering in its day, employing various other health professionals to provide a holistic service. Partners shared socialist principles and a commitment to support patients living with addictions, mental health issues and poverty.

Sheila had a reputation as a committed, caring doctor who went the extra mile for patients. In 1986 she moved back to Sheffield and became a partner in a co-operative practice in Crookes for the remainder of her working life. She continued to be active in organisations including Doctors for a Woman’s Choice on Abortion, National Assembly of Women and Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and was a fierce opponent of the Iraq wars. As part of a humanitarian delegation she visited Baghdad in 2000 and met many of Mohamed’s family for the first time.

Sheila had an enthusiasm for life and a passion for social justice and politics. She was a loyal friend and enjoyed travelling, writing essays crammed on to postcards from wherever she roamed.

She is survived by Mohamed, her four daughters, Hooda, Nadia, Samya and me, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Remembering Sheila Abdullah’s time in Liverpool

Katy Gardner, retired GP, Liverpool

I first met Sheila when I came to Liverpool to work at Alder Hey hospital in 1976. Sheila, a feminist and socialist, along with her friend, Jane Leighton, secretary of South-Central Community Health Council, were very supportive to me then, and also later when I started work in Princes Park Health Centre, Liverpool 8 in 1978. I was new to Liverpool, but they made me feel at home straight away. I was a  member of Doctors for a Womens Choice on Abortion in which Sheila was already involved. We campaigned successfully against various anti-Abortion bills including Corrie and Alton and, as part of the Merseyside Abortion Campaign, to set up a free NHS Day Care Abortion Service in Liverpool, which opened in 1982. Sheila had long campaigned for this service, after having to beg the very few willing consultant gynaecologists to perform abortions on local women, for whom, too often, there were unnecessary delays.

During the 1980s Sheila and I were involved in campaigning for women’s health services in Liverpool and took part in the successful campaign to save Duchess Ward at the Women’s Hospital. The campaign organised a “Women in White” march from the Womens Hospital to the community health council.  400 women, dressed in white, marched to represent all women on the gynaecology waiting list at the Women’s. Sheila also supported the launch of the Women’s Health Information and Support Centre (WHISC), which is still operating today. Marge Ben-Tovim, friend, activist and also patient,  remembered: “Sheila Abdullah was a particularly important figure in my life – not just a sympathetic and highly competent GP, but a key sister and friend in the formative years of the Women‘s Movement on Merseyside. We worked closely together on many campaigns, mainly focused on women’s health issues.”  Julia South, an activist in the Merseyside Abortion Campaign recalled: “Sheila would speak out at public meetings about the women who had died before the 1967 Abortion Act from back street abortions. She was both passionate and eloquent in her insistence that women be granted the respect – and the legal right – to make their own decisions about abortion. She inspired me and many others.”

Sheila and I worked voluntarily in the Brook Advisory Centre in our spare time, for several years holding clinics in a cold basement, with a one bar electric fire and a concrete floor. The local Family Planning Association donated contraception supplies and many women came to us requesting abortion, fearing that their GPs would be unsympathetic. We lobbied, eventually successfully, for funding for a fully funded Brook Advisory service for young people in Liverpool. 

Sheila had joined Princes Park health centre, set up by Dr Cyril Taylor in Liverpool 8, soon after it opened in 1977. She was already a member of the Community Health Council, one of the most radical in the UK thanks to its secretary, Jane Leighton. Sheila had met Cyril through the Socialist Medical Association and in 1978 she took over a single-handed general practice in Upper Parliament Street with the express purpose of moving into Princes Park Health Centre. Sheila’s energy was boundless and she put 100% into her work as a GP, as she did when campaigning. She always had time to listen. Cathy Hogan recalled: “Her devotion to patients led to her working long hours with morning surgeries often still going at two pm. A home visit regularly meant Sheila making a cup of tea for the patients whilst she consulted at their home.” Linda Pepper, feminist, local activist and one of Sheila’s patients remembered: “She was not just a doctor but an advocate. I had to have an amniocentesis and the hospital doctor said I could not be told the sex of the baby, as in their experience the husband could beat up the woman if the sex was not the one they wanted.  I said: ‘Would you rather I was beaten up when pregnant, or just after the baby was born?!’  If they knew the sex of the baby, then I wanted to know. Sheila contacted the hospital, saying that as my GP it was her right to know the full results, including sex of baby. She got them and told me.” Another patient recalled first meeting Sheila when she was in her early teens: “Our last doctor was single-handed. He never talked to us. I had stomach-ache and Sheila checked me over, saying she was not sure what was wrong, but she didn’t think it was just my stomach. She talked to me. In fact, I was having problems at school and I told her everything. It made me feel so much better, as my family were lovely, but they never talked.” Sheila would always go the extra mile, sometimes literally. A patient remembered Sheila visiting her when she was convalescing after a cancer operation in Formby (an hour from the practice): “I date my recovery from that day. I was devastated and she just listened. It made me feel so much better”.

Sheila left Liverpool in 1987 to be nearer to her family. She was a legend to all who knew her in Liverpool, whether as patients or comrades. She is sorely missed.

This is based on extracts from a book I have co-written with Susanna Graham Jones about Princes Park Health Centre in Liverpool 8: “A radical practice in Liverpool: the rise fall and rise of Princes Park Health Centre,” which was published in spring 2021. All quotes are with permission.