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Amendment to stop abortion to birth for Down’s syndrome tabled by Sir Liam Fox MP

An MP has tabled an amendment that would bring an end to the current situation where abortion is available between 24 weeks and birth for babies with Down’s syndrome.

Sir Liam Fox, former GP, cabinet minister and defence secretary, announced his amendment to the Government’s Criminal Justice Bill last week and tabled it earlier today. The amendment has been signed by 40 MPs, and intends to bring the abortion time limit for babies with Down’s syndrome in line with the time limit for babies that do not have disabilities.

Under the Abortion Act 1967, the current abortion limit is 24 weeks, but for cases in which a baby is diagnosed with a disability, including Down’s syndrome, abortion is currently available up to birth. 

The amendment has cross-party support from MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. This includes former shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, former health minister Maggie Throup, former Conservative Party leader and cabinet minister, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, and former cabinet minister Sir David Davis.

Fox’s amendment will likely be debated and voted on as part of the Criminal Justice Bill, which is expected to return to the Commons for Report Stage following the Easter recess.

On announcing his Bill, Sir Liam Fox said “There is considerable cross-party support to remove an anomaly in UK law which allows those with Down’s syndrome to be aborted up until 40 weeks. Many of us believe this is utterly against the purpose of our equality legislation and treats those with Down’s syndrome as second-class citizens when it comes to their rights”.

“My amendment would remove an anomaly which many were not aware even existed and send a signal about the values that we share across the political system in our country”.

Spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out Lynn Murray, whose daughter, Rachel, has Down’s syndrome, said “This is an important change to the law and it’s fantastic to see so many MPs are getting behind this change. Very few people are aware of this discriminatory part of our law that singles out babies with disabilities including Down’s syndrome allowing them to be screened out by abortion up to birth”.

“As a mother of a 24-year-old daughter who has Down’s syndrome, I see every day the unique value she brings to our family and the positive impact she has on others around her”. 

“By having a different time limit for babies with disabilities including Down’s syndrome, section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act, promotes inequality and perpetuates negative stereotypes. This law sends a message that people with Down’s syndrome are less worthy of life and protection than others”.

“The provision in the Abortion Act harks back to a time when we thought it was better for people with disabilities not to be part of our society. We live in a far more inclusive and progressive society now, where we celebrate diversity, and all of our laws should reflect that”.

The amendment will be debated alongside a vote on Caroline Ansell’s landmark amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to lower the abortion limit to 22 weeks.

Scotland may end discriminatory Down’s syndrome abortion

Ministers in Scotland are also considering reforming abortion law in Scotland, which could involve changing the abortion law in relation to Down’s syndrome abortion.

As part of a review of abortion law to be carried out before the end of the current parliament in 2026, a ministerial working group is being set up to examine the issue.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said “We have committed to taking forward a review of the law on abortion and will consider options for reform to ensure that it is first and foremost a healthcare matter”.

“That review will include consideration of whether or not there should be any changes to the current law in Scotland in relation to abortions where a fetal anomaly has been diagnosed. We would need to wait for the outcomes of that review before considering any changes to abortion law”.

869 abortions for Down’s syndrome in 2021

The latest available full-year abortion statistics, for the year ending 31 December 2021, show there were 859 abortions where a baby had Down’s syndrome in 2021, an increase of 24% from 2020.

However, there is evidence that the actual numbers are higher than reported due to underreporting of disability abortion statistics. A review in 2013 showed there were 886 abortions for Down’s syndrome in England and Wales in 2010 but only 482 were reported in abortion statistics from the Department of Health and Social Care. The underreporting was confirmed by a 2014 Department of Health and Social Care review.

There has been growing momentum for a change in the law in this area after Heidi Crowter, a 28-year-old woman from Coventry who has Down’s syndrome, took a landmark case against the UK Government over the disability clause in the current law. Her case has been heard in the High Court and Court of Appeal.

Heidi has been joined in her fight for a change in the law by Máire Lea-Wilson from Brentford, West London, whose four-year-old son, Aidan, has Down’s syndrome. Máire Lea-Wilson was placed under pressure to have an abortion when a 34-week scan revealed her son had Down’s syndrome. There has been widespread coverage of Heidi and Máire’s case across major media outlets. 

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries that provide for abortion in a way that distinguishes between foetuses on the basis of disability.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland made a key recommendation that the UK change its abortion law so that it does not single out babies with disabilities. The Government has decided to ignore this recommendation.

The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion for Disability found the vast majority of those who gave evidence believed allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability is discriminatory, contrary to the spirit of the Equality Act 2010 and that it affects wider public attitudes towards discrimination. The Inquiry recommended Parliament review the question of allowing abortion on the grounds of disability and should consider repealing section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act which allows for it.

Polling has shown that the majority of people in England, Wales and Scotland feel that disability should not be grounds for abortion at all, with only one in three people thinking it is acceptable to ban abortion for gender or race but allow it for disability.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “The law clearly discriminates against people with Down’s syndrome and does not provide the same protections for babies with Down’s syndrome that other unborn babies have”.

“Heidi Crowter’s landmark case against the UK Government over the disability clause in the current law has put this issue on the national stage. MPs are now moving to ensure that babies with Down’s syndrome cannot have their lives deliberately ended between 24 weeks and birth”.

Dear reader,

You may be surprised to learn that our 24-week abortion time limit is out of line with the majority of European Union countries, where the most common time limit for abortion on demand or on broad social grounds is 12 weeks gestation.

The latest guidance from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine enables doctors to intervene to save premature babies from 22 weeks. The latest research indicates that a significant number of babies born at 22 weeks gestation can survive outside the womb, and this number increases with proactive perinatal care.

This leaves a real contradiction in British law. In one room of a hospital, doctors could be working to save a baby born alive at 23 weeks whilst, in another room of that same hospital, a doctor could perform an abortion that would end the life of a baby at the same age.

The majority of the British population support reducing the time limit. Polling has shown that 70% of British women favour a reduction in the time limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks or below.

Please click the button below to sign the petition to the Prime Minister, asking him to do everything in his power to reduce the abortion time limit.