Lord Shinkwin accused a Government Bill which would force abortion on Northern Ireland of telling people with disabilities that they are “better off dead.”
In a debate in the House of Lords surrounding the Government’s attempt to force abortion on Northern Ireland, Lord Kevin Shinkwin asked whether the supporters of the abortion amendment had considered the message this Bill sends to people with disabilities: that they are “better off dead”.
Abortion law in England and Wales permits abortion up until 24 weeks of pregnancy in normal circumstances, but if the unborn baby has a disability, abortion is permitted up until the birth of the child. A number of recent incidents show mothers are being heavily pressured to have abortions when their child is diagnosed with a disability.
In Northern Ireland, however, the pro-life laws mean unborn children with disabilities are equally respected in law. The Lord highlighted the disparity in the rate of Downs Syndrome based abortions where in England and Wales, approximately 90% of all children diagnosed with Downs Syndrome in the womb are aborted.
“[In Northern Ireland] 52 children with Down’s syndrome were born in 2016, in the same year only one child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.”
“Is that not a cause for celebration? Is it not to Northern Ireland’s immense credit that disability equality is actually respected there?”
Addressing the Minister he said: “How does he reconcile the [Disability Discrimination] Act’s acknowledgement of the right of disabled human beings to be equal, to contribute to society and to be respected with the message of the Bill, which is that if you are born with a disability, as I was, you are better off dead?”
Lord Shinkwin who was himself born with a disability, has long campaigned for the rights of disabled persons and objects to this Bill on the grounds of its “lethal discrimination” against people with disabilities.
Commenting on the outgoing Prime Minister’s concern that she leave a strong legacy, without “burning injustice”, Lord Shinkwin said:
“I will, therefore, take the opportunity to urge her not to create a burning injustice by allowing the abortion of human beings diagnosed before birth with conditions such as mine to be part of that message.
“If she does, no one in my party should be surprised if disabled people and their families think that the Conservative Party hates us and believes that we would be better off dead.”
The debate in the House of Lords took place as the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill is being fast-tracked through both houses of Parliament in little over a week when normally legislation such as this can take several months. The Bill has been heavily criticised for refusing to follow ordinary parliamentary procedure and having no time for full parliamentary or public scrutiny.
MPs from Northern Ireland have also been particularly vocal about how this Bill undermines the devolved powers of Northern Ireland, which retains the authority to make its own abortion law independently of Westminster.
Clare McCarthy from Right To Life UK said:
“Lord Shinkwin is right to emphasise the impact this will have on people with disabilities who are already heavily discriminated against in the rest of the UK, where they can be aborted up to birth, compared with normal cases where abortion is available up until 24 weeks.”
“Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the life of an unborn child with a disability is treated as having the same dignity and worth as every other child. If abortion is forced on Northern Ireland, it is likely that disabled children will be discriminated against in the same fashion as they are in the rest of the UK. This is not the mark of a civilised society.”
Full text of Lord Shinkwin’s speech:
My Lords, I support Amendment 23 and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for persevering despite her sore throat and inspiring those of us who support the amendment. I support it because I believe it underlines our respect for devolution and for the people of Northern Ireland, a clear majority of whom, polling shows, as we have already heard, do not want law changes imposed on them by us here in London.
I also support it for another reason. I do not take a position on abortion per se; I do, however, take a position on disability equality. What is proposed in the Bill drives a coach and horses through disability equality. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—indeed, whether anyone in the Government or in No. 10—has considered the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devoted parents and families of disabled children and, most importantly, to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability. If the Bill is passed, that will change overnight on 21 October.
I invite noble Lords to consider the Bill from the perspective of someone with Down’s syndrome. In England and Wales, the latest available figures show that 90% of human beings diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Today, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed. Instead, the culture is one of welcome and support for this disability. The latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland showed that while 52 children with Down’s syndrome were born in 2016, in the same year only one child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.
I ask my noble friend the Minister: is that not a cause for celebration? Is it not to Northern Ireland’s immense credit that disability equality is actually respected there? He may be aware that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the most important social justice milestone of the 20th century for disabled people: the Disability Discrimination Act. A Conservative Government introduced it. How does he reconcile the Act’s acknowledgement of the right of disabled human beings to be equal, to contribute to society and to be respected with the message of the Bill, which is that if you are born with a disability, as I was, you are better off dead? For that is its message to disabled human beings, their families and the people of Northern Ireland.
That is why it is so sad that the party which swore to respect Northern Ireland is driving roughshod over the clearly expressed views of the majority of its people to impose lethal discrimination on grounds of disability and to treat human beings diagnosed with disability before birth as less equal. How terribly progressive, my Lords.
I wonder who has the greater learning disability here: those who seem intent on denying the equal right to exist to those such as human beings with Down’s syndrome or those, especially in my party, who appear determined to unlearn the lessons of the Disability Discrimination Act.
I was born disabled; I will die disabled. That is the hand I have been dealt. Indeed, it is the hand that most of us are likely to be dealt before our days are done. Are we seriously saying, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, with all the amazing advances in medicine and technology, that we are so regressive, so insecure as a species, that we cannot cope with disability?
Various commentators report that the Prime Minister wants to leave a strong legacy. I am sure I am not the only Member of your Lordships’ House who will remember her speech committing herself and her Government to ending burning injustices. I will therefore take the opportunity to urge her not to create a burning injustice by allowing the abortion of human beings diagnosed before birth with conditions such as mine to be part of that message. If she does, no one in my party should be surprised if disabled people and their families think that the Conservative Party hates us and believes that we would be better off dead.
In conclusion, there is a clear choice to be made, and not just by my party. The choice is for disability equality or inequality. I implore all noble Lords who believe in genuine equality to stand with disabled human beings in Northern Ireland and respect them, and devolution, by supporting this amendment.