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Woman with Down’s syndrome’s case against UK Govt over discriminatory abortion law heard by High Court

A landmark case against the UK Government over the current discriminatory abortion law that allows abortion up to birth for Down’s syndrome is being heard today at the High Court. Heidi Crowter, a 25-year-old woman from Coventry who has Down’s syndrome, together with Máire Lea-Wilson from Brentford, West London, whose twenty-three-month-old son Aidan has Down’s syndrome, are challenging the UK Government over a disability clause in the current law. 

“Intense pressure to abort”

Currently in England, Wales, and Scotland, there is a general 24-week time limit for abortion, but if the baby has a disability, including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip, and club foot, abortion is legal right up to birth.

Latest figures show that around 90% of babies who are prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted.

Ms Lea-Wilson has spoken frequently about how she was “placed under intense pressure” to have an abortion after a 34-week scan revealed her son had Down’s syndrome.

Ahead of the case today she said: “I have two sons that I love and value equally, but the law does not value them equally. This is wrong and so we want to try and change that…We proclaim that we live in a society that values those with disabilities, that everyone deserves a fair and equal chance at life, regardless of their ability status. This law undermines that narrative, does it really have a place in 2021?”

“Offensive and discriminatory”

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries that provide for abortion 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 also made a key recommendation that the UK change its abortion law so that it does not single out babies with disabilities. 

The Disability Rights Commission (subsumed into the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007) has said that this aspect of the Abortion Act “is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability…[and] is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally”.

A 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion for Disability also 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 reviews the question of allowing abortion on the grounds of disability.

Standing up for equality

Lynn Murray, spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out and mother of Rachel who has Down’s syndrome, said: “By stating that disability is grounds for termination, section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act promotes inequality. 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’re a far more progressive society now, we realise that diversity is healthy, and all of our laws should reflect that”.

Mrs Crowter said: “People like me are considered to be ‘seriously handicapped’, but I think using that phrase for a clause in abortion law is so out of date…People shouldn’t be treated differently because of their disabilities, it’s downright discrimination”.

Ms Lea-Wilson added: “I am thrilled to hear that the case will be heard in court on the 6th and 7th July, and I hope that this will be the time that we all stand up for equality”.

Widespread popular and political support

Last March, the UK Government introduced new abortion regulations to Northern Ireland. The regulations allow abortion up to birth for disabilities including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip, and club foot. 1,875 people with Down’s syndrome and their families signed a letter to Boris Johnson urging him to ensure that selective abortion for Down’s syndrome was not introduced to Northern Ireland. 

Polling has shown that the majority of people in England, Wales and Scotland feel that disability should not be a 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.

In February this year, Northern Irish MLA Paul Givan introduced the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill in conjunction with the ‘Don’t Screen Us Out’ Campaign. It has since received a huge level of support with 1,608 people with Down’s syndrome and their families signing an open letter to the Assembly urging them to vote in favour of the bill. Almost 28,500 members of the general public have also signed a petition in support of the Bill, which proposes to amend the aspect of the 2020 Regulations that allows abortion up until birth for babies with disabilities.

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “As Heidi and Máire have tragically highlighted, the current law – which allows abortion up to birth for babies with disabilities but does not permit abortion past 24 weeks for babies without disabilities – does tell people with disabilities that they are valued less than people without disabilities”.

“There is simply no place for such abhorrent legal discrimination in 21st century Britain. We hope the High Court will rule in favour of equality and justice, while also taking into account the majority of the public’s disapproval of the current discriminatory law”.

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.