NZ PM Jacinda Ardern’s Bill to introduce abortion up to birth for children with Down’s syndrome – Parents speak out

Parents of children with Down’s syndrome, as well as leading Down’s syndrome advocacy groups, have spoken out against the New Zealand Government’s abortion Bill which will permit abortion up to birth for babies prenatally diagnosed with the condition. The Bill has been introduced following a pledge before the last election from the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to make widespread changes to abortion law.

On the final day (19/09) for public submissions on the New Zealand Abortion Legislation Bill, a number of parents have publicly voiced their concerns about the harmful impact this Bill will have on people with Down’s syndrome.

The new abortion Bill

Currently, there is a 20-week time limit for disability-selective abortions in New Zealand law.

The proposed legislation will see this time limit removed and abortion for babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome will be available up until birth, with the approval of a single doctor. 

In 2017, Saving Down Syndrome highlighted their concern that in her pledge to change the abortion laws, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, would end up introducing abortion up to birth for babies with disabilities. In response, Jacinda Ardern made a commitment to not increase the time limit for disability-selective abortion.

Saving Down Syndrome, in their submission on the Abortion Legislation Bill, highlighted that Jacinda Ardern had broken that promise. Hundreds of people with Down’s syndrome and their families have signed an open letter calling on Jacinda Ardern to not break her promise.

In their submission, Saving Down Syndrome highlighted that the relevant clause in the proposed New Zealand legislation, only requires one registered health practitioner, which could include a single nurse. By contrast, in Victoria, Australia – which has a similar law – there is a higher threshold requiring two doctors two approve a late term abortion.

In the handful of jurisdictions that have a similar clause, in practice this has allowed for abortion for disabilities including Down’s syndrome right up to birth. In fact, there have been over 1,600 abortions of babies with a disability in Victoria, Australia, since the law was changed in 2008.

Pressure to abort

Many parents recounted the pressure they were put under by health workers to either undergo prenatal genetic testing for Down’s Syndrome (with the assumption that the mother would then choose an abortion) or to have an abortion if genetic tests suggested their child had an Down’s Syndrome.

Aggie Brown, whose adopted son Reuben has Down’s Syndrome, said his birth mother was put under constant pressure to have an abortion once her child was prenatally diagnosed with having Down’s Syndrome.

“Unfortunately her GP was strongly asking her to consider having an abortion and was actually giving the birth mum all the worst scenario if she decided to keep the baby,” she said.

“The birth mum actually dreaded to go to her health visits because it was always brought up by the GP and we actually applaud the birth mum for sticking to her guns.”

Rachel Price, a New Zealand mother who has a daughter, Eden, with Down’s Syndrome, recounted a very similar experience during a subsequent pregnancy. Even when Rachel said that she did not want genetic testing on multiple occasions, the clinic she attended made an appointment for her anyway, which she told them to cancel.

“We were under immense pressure to go and have genetic counselling,” she said.

“But why? If we have another child with Down’s Syndrome we are quite OK with that and we will carry on with the pregnancy.”

The representative for the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, Diane Burnett also has a daughter, Jada, who has Down’s Syndrome, and she said the social and medical pressure was intense when she wanted to opt out of the prenatal screening process.

The women said the developments in prenatal screening aimed at detecting disabilities has led to an assumption that women will want an abortion if they find out their baby might have Down’s Syndrome.

They were concerned that New Zealand could edge closer to what has happened in countries such as Iceland, which has an almost 100% abortion rate for unborn babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome.

One parent, whose son has Down’s syndrome, went so far as to say routine abortion of babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome was a form of eugenics.

“I think New Zealand can do better than Iceland. I feel really saddened to hear that Iceland abort 99 percent of people that have Down’s Syndrome,” she said.

“To me that seems like a eugenics programme, and that’s just madness.”

What’s it actually like to have a child with Down’s Syndrome?

In addition to the pressures they felt in regard to abortion, all the parents were eager to let others know how happy their children with Down’s Syndrome were, and the one-sided nature of the discussion which rarely shows this.

Diane Burnett of the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association said women are just not given the full picture when they find out. “They are given very medical and clinical information,” she said.

“Figures on heart conditions and health conditions and hearing loss and eyesight problems, and people with Down’s Syndrome are not the only people who have those issues.”

“They’re not getting what it is actually like to have a child with Down’s Syndrome.”

Aggie Brown whose adopted son had Downs’ Syndrome said “Most people know that with Down’s Syndrome they carry the happy gene, they are always smiling,” she said.

“They do have their moments, they are strong-willed, but overall, for Reuben, it’s very rare that he’s cranky. He’s always a happy-go-lucky child and we are very fortunate.”

Irish abortion mix-up leaves parents ‘devastated’

An investigation is likely to be carried out at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin after an abortion was carried on a healthy child mistakenly diagnosed as having a “fatal foetal abnormality”.

Reports say that after pre-natal screening, the parents were told that their baby had Trisomy 18, otherwise known as Edwards Syndrome, a serious genetic condition which means the child is unlikely to live beyond the first few months of life outside of the womb. (Although in rare cases, people with Edwards Syndrome have been known to survive to adulthood.)

The family’s solicitor, Caoimhe Haughey said:

“[The parents] did not go into this clinic or into this hospital with a view to having a termination. They went into this hospital to find out how well their pregnancy was going… But this led them down a path when suddenly they’re talking about termination. They never brought up the word termination.

The apparently rushed nature of the consultation suggests that the parents were put under pressure to have the abortion. Seemingly, this is quite common when there is prenatal diagnosis of genetic abnormalities, particularly Downs syndrome.

A later test however, revealed that their child was perfectly healthy and did not have Edwards Syndrome. The couple have been described by their lawyer as “utterly, utterly mentally and physically devastated”, and it is understood that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ROCG) have been approached regarding the possibility of conducting a review.

“Being a doctor and being aware of the limitations of science, I am aware that these cases can happen but that doesn’t take away at all from the individual tragedy that has happened here.” said, Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar. He was apparently unaware that this tragedy was avoidable and happened as a direct result of a law he fully endorsed.

This case is obviously extremely sad, and was made possible by the introduction of abortion into the country following a referendum on the 8th Amendment in 2018, where the Irish people voted to remove legal protections for the unborn from the Irish Constitution.

It is a great tragedy that a nation decided to remove legal protection for unborn babies, and it is worth noting that this case would never have happened whilst abortion remained illegal in Ireland. When abortion becomes legally and morally acceptable, children conceived in less than ideal circumstances and ‘unwanted’ children are in great danger, but, as is clear in this case, even ‘wanted’ children are at risk

Additionally, the prejudice against people with disabilities is also evident in this case. The discussion of this case sees the tragedy lying in the misdiagnosis and then abortion of a healthy child, apparently assuming that, if it were the case that the child really did have Edwards Syndrome, then there would have been no tragedy.

A similar prejudice against people with disabilities is reflected in the abortion law in England and Wales which allows abortion up to 24 weeks in cases where the child is healthy, but permits abortion up until birth if the child is disabled. This is clear and explicit discrimination, written into law, against people with disabilities, and reveals much about our cultural attitude toward disabled persons.

In truth, Ireland has made the same grave mistake that Britain made in 1967, where children in the womb are constantly in danger of being viewed as products which, if they do not meet certain requirements (i.e. they are disabled), they are to be discarded. As this case shows, even if the product is up to the required standard, misdiagnosis means that he/she is still in grave peril.

NB The language of “production” is already routinely used in the medical community, where unborn children are frequently referred to as “products of conception”.