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Abortion (Cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot) Bill receives First Reading

A Bill which would change the law to clarify that cleft palate, cleft lip, cleft palate and lip, and club foot are not grounds for abortion in the UK has received a First Reading this afternoon. 

The Abortion (Cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot) Bill, which has cross-party support, was presented by Fiona Bruce MP shortly after today’s Prime Minister’s Questions and urgent questions. 

An early day motion supporting the Bill has also been launched by Carla Lockhart MP and she is encouraging MPs to sign the motion to show their support for the Bill. 

Both the Bill and early day motion have the support of a cross-party group of MPs from the UK Parliament’s three largest parties.

The issue of abortion for such minor and correctable conditions is of personal significance to Fiona as her son was born with club foot.

Decades after his club foot was corrected by two operations and a year of physiotherapy, Fiona’s son is now studying for a doctorate at Oxford.

Speaking to The Sun about her son, Fiona said: “Being born with this condition has not held my son back, rather the opposite. It has given him a depth of understanding about the value of every human life.

“Now in his mid-20s, he lives life to the full and no one would ever know, apart from the most experienced clinician in this field. It is hard to think that such a treatable disability could have deprived my son of life.”

She added: “This is a sensible law change that I am inviting all MPs, regardless of where they stand on the wider issue of abortion, to get behind and support.

“It has now been 30 years since Parliament properly reviewed our law on abortion for disability.

“Every child with one of these conditions deserves the same chance of life as my son. I also want to ensure that no parent has to go through any pressure to abort their baby for what is clearly a correctable condition.

“It’s time our legislation caught up to reflect society’s positive changes in attitudes towards those born with disabilities and medical advances in the intervening years.”

Currently, abortion is allowed up to birth for babies with disabilities. This has been interpreted to include cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot, meaning abortion is legal up to birth based solely on a primary diagnosis of one of these conditions.

All of these conditions can be easily corrected after birth but stories of women who have been offered abortion following the diagnosis of a cleft lip, cleft palate or club foot on their child have proliferated the media since the Bill was announced.

One such mother is Sophie Caldecott, who was offered abortions throughout her pregnancy after her 20-week scan showed her daughter had clubfoot. 

Sharing her story with the Guardian, Sophie said: “My daughter is now six and you can’t tell that there was anything wrong with her feet or ankles now, thanks to very minor surgery in her first few months and physiotherapy. But when the sonographer discovered the problem, she told my husband and me that we could have our money back for the scans, and implied it was likely we’d want an abortion.”

Sophie was then offered another abortion at her next scan, five weeks later. She commented: “On the one hand, medical professionals were reassuring me that this was a minor birth defect that could be easily corrected, yet on the other, I was being offered an abortion after the usual 24-week cut-off point as though my child had a severe and life-altering disability.”

Lauren Bolt, whose two-year-old daughter was born with a cleft lip and palate, told The Times it was “time legislation caught up to reflect society’s positive change in attitudes towards those born with disabilities, and medical advances”

David Smyth, a lawyer and charity boss who was born with a cleft lip, told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s shocking babies can be aborted up to birth [for a cleft lip] – the law must change.” 

Official abortion statistics for England and Wales show that abortions are happening on the grounds that a baby has one of these conditions. According to the Department of Health & Social Care, seventy-five babies with either a cleft lip or cleft palate as their principal condition were aborted between 2011 and 2018. 

However due to underreporting the figures are likely to be much higher, for example a 2013 review by Eurocat showed 157 babies were aborted for cleft lip and palate in England and Wales between 2006 and 2010. However, the Department of Health & Social Care (DoHSC) recorded only 14 such abortions.

While the Government are reluctant to release data on club foot terminations, data reported by Eurocat showed that 205 babies with club foot were aborted in England and Wales between 2006 and 2010.

There is no shortage of testimonials from individuals who have been diagnosed with cleft lip, cleft palate or club foot and were not held back, including Steven Gerrard, Joaquin Phoenix, Kristi Yamaguchi and Carmit Bachar.

Polling from SavantaComRes shows that only one in three people think it is acceptable to ban abortion for gender or race but allow it for disability. The support for allowing disability-selective abortion for conditions such as club foot, cleft lip and cleft palate is likely even lower.

Right To Life UK has launched the Stand Up and Smile campaign and is encouraging members of the public to visit the campaign page at www.standupandsmile.org.uk where they can ask their MP to support the Bill.

A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson said:

“As a society, we should be empowering those with disabilities, and take great pride in the positive contribution they make to our country. To do this, we have a moral obligation to quash anything that perpetuates false and negative stereotypes towards those with a disability, and that is why we support the group of cross-party MPs who have brought forward this important Bill to help end disability-discrimination in the womb. 

People are shocked and horrified when they discover that abortion is permitted up to birth after the diagnosis of cleft lip, cleft palate, and clubfoot as the primary condition, believing it goes against the very fabric of what our country stands for today.   

Our abortion legislation is badly in need of reform to end this unjust discrimination, and we hope this Bill is successful in helping end this disability-discrimination.”

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