The High Court in London will hear a landmark case against the UK Government over the country’s discriminatory abortion legislation, which singles out babies with disabilities by allowing terminations right through to birth for conditions including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot.
Currently in England, Scotland and Wales, there is a 24-week time limit for most abortions that are carried out when a baby does not have a disability. However, if the baby has a disability, abortion is legal right up to birth.
Heidi Carter, a 25-year-old woman with Down’s syndrome, and Máire Lea-Wilson, whose sixteen-month-old son Aidan also has the condition, both believe this is “deeply offensive” and have joined forces to challenge the law.
Heidi Carter, who recently got married in one of the first post-lockdown weddings, said:
“At the moment in the UK, babies can be aborted right up to birth if they are considered to be ‘seriously handicapped’. They include me in that definition of being seriously handicapped – just because I have an extra chromosome! Can you believe that?
“What it says to me is that my life just isn’t as valuable as others, and I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s downright discrimination!”
She added: “I am going to take the Government to court with other members of the Down’s syndrome community to make sure that people aren’t treated differently because of their disabilities.”
Máire, an accountant, equality rights campaigner and mother said: “Our case is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. It’s about the specific instance of inequality in the law, whereby for a child without a disability the legal limit for abortion is 24 weeks, but you can have an abortion right up to full term with a child that does have a disability.
“I have two sons, and I love and value them equally; however, the law does not value them equally. That feels so wrong to me, and so we want to try and change that.
“I was 34 weeks pregnant when we discovered it was likely that Aidan would have Down’s syndrome.
“The first thing they wanted to discuss at the hospital was whether we would like to terminate the pregnancy. It felt like the assumption was that we would abort our baby. At such a late stage of pregnancy, and at a time when I was scared and vulnerable, that was a very difficult question to get asked. I find it very hard to think back on that time.
“I find it difficult to think that Aidan’s life isn’t seen as valuable as his older brother’s. It makes me worry as to whether he will be seen the same or treated the same. I also really worry that when he is older, if this law is still in place, how will that make him feel: that he’s not as valuable? That he doesn’t have equal worth?
“Aidan is a little ray of sunshine. He’s had some challenges and done so well so we’re just really proud of him. I would not change him for the world.”
Speaking to Sky News yesterday, the 32-year-old added: “I want my children to grow up knowing that we truly are all equally valued, regardless of ability status.
“My reason for bringing this joint legal action to try and change the law is simple; as a mother, I will do everything in my power to make sure my child is treated fairly and equally. My reason is Aidan.”
Heidi and Máire’s legal challenge has generated widespread support from those with first-hand experience of Down’s syndrome, pro-life campaigners, disability advocates and more.
Over 6,000,000 people have watched Heidi tell Channel 5 the current law is “deeply offensive” and still more have watched her telling the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that the current law makes her feel “unloved and unwanted”.
The campaign has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media, with people adding #ImWithAidan and #ImWithHeidi to their posts.
The support for Aidan, Heidi and Máire is in line with polling on the issue, which shows that the majority of people in England, Wales and Scotland feel that disability should not be grounds for abortion at all. Just one in three people think it is acceptable to ban abortion for gender or race but allow it for disability.
Scale of Down’s syndrome abortions
There were 3,183 disability selective abortions across England & Wales in 2019, with 656 of those occurring following a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.
However, the figures are likely to be much higher.
In a 2013 review on disability-selective abortions, it was revealed 886 babies were aborted for Down’s syndrome in England and Wales in 2010, but only 482 of these were reported in official Department of Health records.
The underreporting was confirmed in 2014 in a Department of Health review.
There has also been an increase in the number of abortions of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome since the introduction of new prenatal screening tests.
Figures published last year show that the number of babies born with Down’s syndrome in the UK has dropped by 30% in NHS hospitals that have introduced the new non-invasive prenatal tests.
The figures prompted Down’s syndrome advocates to ask the Government to halt the roll-out of the new tests and undertake an inquiry into the impact that the tests are having on the birth numbers of babies with Down’s syndrome.
However, their pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears, as the Government recently announced that it will be proceeding with the procurement and rollout of a nationwide prenatal testing scheme for Down’s syndrome – something which will likely lead to an increase of babies with the condition being aborted.
‘Screening out’ babies with Down’s syndrome seen as ‘cash cow’
Earlier this year a spokesperson for a Chinese biotech firm declared “screening out” babies with Down’s syndrome is a “cash cow” funding the growth of the whole business.
The admission came from a spokesperson for BGI Group – a Chinese genetics conglomerate whose main business is offering non-invasive prenatal tests, primarily used to diagnose Down’s syndrome.
In a segment from an Aljazeera documentary titled Genesis 2.0, the spokesperson gestures towards a digital map of the world and says: “You can see clearly, especially for Down’s syndrome, we have nearly two million samples all over the world. This part is, what we call, BGI’s cash cow, making money to support the growth of the whole group.”
Dismissing a query over potential ethical concerns, she coldly adds: “…with the use of our technology, we could avoid the birth of birth defect, like a Down’s syndrome birth, a Down’s syndrome child, we can screen them out, we can avoid the birth of them.”
Parents under pressure to terminate pregnancies
A recent report revealed that pregnant mothers who refuse to abort their children with Down’s syndrome are being pressured by some medical professionals to change their decision.
One mother, whose child is now three-years-old, said medical professionals told her they could leave her baby with Down’s syndrome to die if it was struggling after birth.
Another mum told how even at 38 weeks pregnant she was being offered an abortion.
Sally Phillips, actress, comedian, and mother to Ollie who has Down’s syndrome previously told the Times: “Given advances in medical care and quality of life for people with Down’s syndrome, the different right to life is beginning to look not just dated but barbaric.”
‘Inequality, sanctioned, sponsored and funded by the state’
Lynn Murray, spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out, said:
“By stating that disability is grounds for termination, section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act, promotes inequality. It would be totally condemned if a country’s abortion laws singled out babies on the ground of gender or skin colour, but because it’s a disability such as Down’s syndrome, that’s somehow ok? This is inequality, sanctioned, sponsored and funded by the state.
“This provision in the Abortion Act is a hangover from a time when we had totally different attitudes to the inclusion and contribution of people with disabilities. You only have to look at the discriminatory language used by all sides of the debate in Parliament when this was discussed in 1967 and 1990 to realise how far attitudes have changed. Society has moved on but the law hasn’t. It’s time it did.”
“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.”
Heidi and her legal team have set up a CrowdJustice crowdfunding page to help raise funds for legal proceedings, pay for legal advice and prepare for the case. To find out more and to make a contribution to the case visit: www.crowdjustice.com/case/downrightdiscrimination/