Down’s syndrome advocates speak out against pressure from health bodies that will introduce abortion for the condition to Northern Ireland

Down’s syndrome advocates have spoken out against Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) for putting pressure on the Government to make abortion available for any reason up to 24 weeks – including for Down’s syndrome – in Northern Ireland. 

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives were responding to the Government’s consultation on a new abortion framework for Northern Ireland.

The stance these bodies have adopted is out of touch with more recent medical guidance. In October last year, it was revealed that the survival rate for extremely premature babies has doubled over the past decade, prompting new guidance allowing doctors to try to save babies born as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

The Conservative Government’s current proposed also goes far beyond the existing law in Great Britain and far beyond what is legally required by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

The Government is not required by the Act to introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome, or other disabilities such as cleft lip or club foot, to Northern Ireland. Yet, to the dismay of the Down’s syndrome community, the Conservative Government have proposed to introduce disability-selective abortion up to birth in their extreme framework.

Under one of the proposal options being consulted on, abortion for disabilities would be available through to birth when “The fetus if born would suffer a severe impairment, including a mental or physical disability which is likely to significantly limit either the length or quality of the child’s life” (Section 2.3 – page 17). 

In England and Wales, similar wording has in practice allowed abortions for conditions including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot right through to birth.

Without a clear provision stating otherwise, under the proposed wording in the Conservatives abortion framework it is likely that disability-selective abortion will be available up to birth.

Over 1700 people with Down’s syndrome and their families have now signed an open letter urging the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to introduce disability-selective abortion up to birth in Northern Ireland.

Dozens of families, who have signed the letter, have shared photos of their children with Down’s syndrome on social media to help send a strong message to Boris Johnson.

The letter has been backed by the Don’t Screen Us Out community, a coalition of advocacy groups, who are concerned about the scope of the Northern Ireland regulations and the “devastating impact” it will have on families with Down’s syndrome children.

The letter to Boris Johnson warns him if a provision is put in place to protect babies with Down’s syndrome he will be “directly responsible for introducing a deeply discriminatory law to Northern Ireland that will allow for babies with Down’s syndrome to be chosen for abortion simply because they are found to have the condition.”

It adds: “This seems archaic in a culture where we embrace our differences and no longer treat people with disabilities as second-class citizens.

“We are asking that you ensure that selective abortion for Down’s syndrome, which will have such great consequences for our community, is not introduced to Northern Ireland.

“Boris Johnson, please do the right thing. Don’t screen us out. Ensure that abortion for Down’s syndrome is not introduced to Northern Ireland.”

In England and Wales – where abortion is available up until birth if a baby has a disability – people with disabilities are unjustly and disproportionately targeted by abortion legislation.

The latest available figures show that 90% of children diagnosed with Down’s syndrome before birth are aborted in England and Wales.

Northern Ireland currently has a very different approach. Disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not permitted and there is a culture of welcoming and supporting people with this disability rather than eliminating them.

This is reflected directly in the latest figures (2016) from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, which show that while there were 52 children born with Down’s syndrome, in the same year, only 1 child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.

A recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that at least 710 late-term abortions (between 20 weeks and birth) for Down’s syndrome have taken place in England and Wales over the last 10 years (2009-2018).

However, the figures are likely to be much higher – a 2013 review showed 886 babies were aborted in England & Wales in 2010, just because they had Down’s syndrome. However, only 482 were reported in Department of Health records, with the underreporting confirmed in a 2014 Department of Health review.

According to the legislation that changed the law, the new framework must be in place by 31 March.

Don’t Screen Us Out spokesperson, Lynn Murray said:

“We oppose the RCOG’s call to introduce an abortion framework that will introduce Down’s syndrome abortion to Northern Ireland. Introducing abortion on request to Northern Ireland would introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland. This would likely lead to a big increase in abortion for congenital conditions detected pre-birth in Northern Ireland, and would reduce the numbers of our already very small community. This would have a devastating impact on the community of people with Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland.

“We are calling on the Government to urgently clarify that they will not introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland. All that is required is for the Government to commit to add a simple provision to the abortion framework that will clearly outline that abortion for Down’s syndrome will explicitly not be allowed.

“The Government were not required by Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 to introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland. Sadly it appears that they have decided to go further than they are required to do by the Act and have opted to introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland in their proposed legal framework.

“We live in a society which proclaims that we want to empower those with disabilities, and that regardless of your background, you deserve a fair and equal chance at life. We believe that our laws must reflect this narrative.”

The RCOG may soon force pro-life medical students who want to protect unborn babies from terminations to learn “abortion skills” under new proposals.In its Better for Women report, the College states its intention to teach and assess “abortion skills” as part of its core curriculum but made no mention of any provision for conscientious objection.

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