High Court to hear landmark case against discriminatory abortion law

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.

‘Downright discrimination’

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.”

Equal worth?

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.”

Widespread support

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.

‘Barbaric’

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.”

Justice

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/

MP criticises UK Government for imposing discriminatory disability abortion on Northern Ireland

DUP MP Carla Lockhart has criticised the UK Government for imposing discriminatory abortion legislation on Northern Ireland, which allows babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome to be aborted right up to birth.

Addressing the Minister for Northern Ireland, Robin Walker MP, in the House of Commons yesterday, the pro-life MP said the Government’s actions allow “disability discrimination within the womb that would otherwise be illegal outside of the womb.”

Her comments come ahead of October’s Down’s syndrome awareness month – a month Carla says we should use to “celebrate Down’s syndrome, raise awareness and promote inclusivity within our society”.

How Northern Ireland’s discriminatory abortion law came about

Last year, in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, politicians in Westminster voted to impose a new abortion regime on the province, despite all of the Northern Ireland MPs who were present voting against the proposals.

Despite the global coronavirus crisis and the Northern Ireland Assembly returning on 11 January 2020, the Conservative Government announced that they would proceed with imposing an extreme abortion regime on Northern Ireland on 31 March 2020.

The Conservative Government chose to take what Parliament asked them to impose on Northern Ireland and made it far worse. This has resulted in Northern Ireland having one of the most extreme abortion regimes in the world.

Under the new regulations, abortion is allowed up to the point of birth for all disabilities, including cleft lip, club foot and Down’s syndrome, whereas if the baby does not have a condition, there is a 24-week time limit.

The regulations also introduce de-facto abortion on demand through to 24-weeks and allow sex-selective abortion through 12-weeks.

In June, in each House’s final vote on the issue, both the House of Commons and House of Lords voted in favour of motions approving the Government’s decision to impose an extreme abortion regime on Northern Ireland.

This was despite a reconvened Northern Ireland Assembly passing a motion opposing the regulations. Additionally, across the two votes held, 75 of Northern Ireland’s 90 MLAs voted against the provisions in the regulations allowing discriminatory disability abortion up to birth.

‘Downright discrimination in the womb’

Carla has long been an outspoken critic of the UK Government’s decision to impose abortion on Northern Ireland, and is a supporter of Heidi Carter, the 25-year-old with Down’s syndrome who has launched a landmark legal challenge against the UK’s discriminatory abortion law.

Ahead of the vote in June, Carla and Heidi delivered a petition to the Prime Minister urging him not to push abortion on Northern Ireland against the will of its people.

Speaking just outside the gates of 10 Downing Street, in June, Heidi said: “I’m asking MPs to allow equality in the womb for every baby.

“I want this to happen because I’m someone who has Down’s Syndrome and I feel that the law makes me upset, it makes me feel like I’m better off dead.

“I think it sends a really negative message.”

She added: “I think the law which allows abortion up to birth for non-fatal disabilities such as mine is downright discrimination in the womb.”

‘Both lives matter’

Carla Lockhart MP who launched the petition with Baroness O’Loan said:

“Along with over 18,000 people from Northern Ireland who signed the petition, we want to send a clear message to the Government that the people of Northern Ireland do not want Westminster imposing these extreme abortion laws on them.

“Instead, we join with Heidi Crowter in saying ‘no’ to discriminatory disability-selective abortion.

“We join Heidi in saying both lives matter.

New prenatal testing linked to increased abortion

The introduction of new prenatal screening tests has been linked to an increase in the number of Down’s syndrome babies aborted in the UK and around the world.

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.

Despite the possibility that prenatal testing is leading to discriminatory disability abortions, the UK Government announced last month that it will be proceeding with the procurement and rollout of a nationwide prenatal testing scheme for Down’s syndrome.

Scotland’s devolved health service announced this week they would also be rolling out the test.

Parents under pressure to terminate pregnancies

Last year, it was discovered 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 four-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.

Over 40 disability groups call on Amazon to take action over discriminatory t-shirts

Amazon is under-fire from Down’s syndrome and learning-disability groups for selling offensive products that incite hate speech against those with a disability.

It comes after the discovery that Amazon was selling t-shirts bearing hateful slogans, such as “Let’s make Down syndrome extinct!” and “F*ck Down syndrome”, for the second time this year.

Now, over forty groups have signed an open letter calling on the online retailer to take steps to do more to tighten up their policies and permanently end the sale of hateful products on their platform.

The letter, signed by groups including the Down’s Syndrome Association, Mencap, and Positive About Down’s Syndrome, urges Amazon to work with them in “helping the Down’s syndrome community stand against hate crime.”

Tens of thousands of people supporting disability community

A petition organised by the founder of one of the letter’s signatories, Diff-Ability Cumbrian Community group asking Amazon to ban any sellers who “incite hate speech against any minorities” has already been signed by over 64,000 people.

Cristina feared seeing such hateful slogans would have a similar effect on her three-year-old son, Max, who has the condition.

She said: “We’re fighting hard to get positive balanced information out there because so many children are aborted when their parents find out they have Down’s syndrome.

“Max does not have any serious health problems, he’s the loveliest boy. But we were so scared before he was born because we believed outdated stereotypes.”

Since then, the petition has received the attention of national media with coverage on TV, radio and in newspapers.

Heidi Carter, a prolific disability activist who is challenging the UK’s abortion law, revealed to BBC News how upsetting it was for her when she first saw the offensive clothing, saying: “I would say that I feel very offended and very upset, and when I first found out, I was nearly crying my eyes out.”

EMBED VIDEO HERE

‘Nasty’

Lynn Murray of Don’t Screen Us Out, one of the letter’s signatories, said: “Our supporters, people with Down’s syndrome and their families, have been offended by the ongoing availability of t-shirts calling for people with Down’s syndrome effectively to be screened-out of society.

“Nevertheless, we’ve been blown away by the support from the public and the media.

“My own daughter Rachel calls these t-shirts ‘nasty’.

“We understand that not everyone realises that people with Down’s syndrome and their families are happy with their lives. This community is trying to shake off an old stereotype that Down’s syndrome screening programmes have failed to tackle.

“If Amazon were to change their discrimination policy to include protection for people with disabilities this would go some way to help improve the profile of this minority group. We are also calling on Amazon to make a guarantee to our community that they will ensure that they will never sell any product in the future that discriminates against our community.”

‘Hatewear’

Actress Sally Phillips, whose oldest child, Olly, has Down’s syndrome criticised Amazon for selling “hatewear” t-shirts, telling The Times: “Eugenic ideas are really taking hold — the idea that there is this subclass of humans and it is better we get rid of them. If you have a world view in which you regard academic intelligence or money-making possibilities as the ultimate goal… then you feel perfectly justified in saying these things.”She added: “It would break my heart if Olly saw anyone wearing those T-shirts.”