Mother of baby with Down’s syndrome joins landmark case against discriminatory abortion law

The mother of a baby with Down’s syndrome is challenging the UK Government’s discriminatory abortion law which singles out babies with disabilities allowing abortion right through to birth – even for including cleft lip, cleft palate, club foot and Down’s syndrome.

Máire Lea-Wilson, whose eleven month-old son Aidan has Down’s syndrome, says she was encouraged in hospital to abort her son when a scan at 34-weeks revealed he had the condition.

The mother has joined forces with Heidi Crowter, a 24-year-old woman from Coventry who has Down’s syndrome, to bring forward the landmark case against the UK Government.

Recalling her experience, Máire said: “I felt like the assumption was that we would abort our baby.”

Earlier this week, she told Sky News: “I have two sons and I love and value them equally and I think it seems really wrong that the law doesn’t value them equally.”

Heidi Crowter added: “It’s downright discrimination”.

Their case is being presented by solicitor Paul Conrathe of Sinclairslaw, who will lodge papers at the High Court this week.

Currently, abortion is available up to birth in England, Wales and Scotland if the baby has a disability, including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot whereas if the baby does not have a condition, there is a 24-week time limit.

In 2018, there were 3,269 disability-selective abortions. 618 of these were for Down’s syndrome, representing a 42% increase in abortion for Down’s syndrome in the last ten years with figures rising from 436 in 2008 – and the figures could 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.

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries which 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 made a key recommendation that the UK change its abortion law on disability so that it does not single out babies with disabilities. The Government continues to ignore this recommendation.

The Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) have 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”.

The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion for Disability 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 and should consider repealing section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act which allows for it.

Disabled peer Lord Shinkwin had a Bill in the House of Lords that would have repealed section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act – the Bill was undefeated but unfortunately ran out of time. Lord Shinkwin’s Bill was supported by Disability Rights UK.

Boris Johnson’s Government has recently introduced new abortion regulations to Northern Ireland. The regulation that the Northern Ireland Office introduced allow abortion up to birth for disabilities including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot.

Over 1,800 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.

Heidi Crowter, from Coventry, who has Down’s syndrome 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! 

“The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently said that the United Kingdom should change its abortion law to make sure that people like me aren’t singled out because of our disabilities. 

“Sadly, the Government decided to ignore their recommendations and didn’t change the law. So now, 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 said: “I have two sons and I love and value them equally and I think it just seems wrong that the law doesn’t value them equally and we want to change that.

“I love and value them equally, so I don’t see why they are not valued equally by the law.

Once it was thought the baby had Down’s syndrome, the first thing they wanted to talk about was whether we wanted to terminate the pregnancy, and I was 34 weeks pregnant, so it was quite a difficult question to get asked at a time when I was scared and vulnerable.

“It is really tough to think back on that, I find it really 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’ll be seen the same or treated the same.

“I felt like the assumption was that we would abort our baby. 

“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 disability the legal limit is 24 weeks, but you can have an abortion right up to full term with a child that does have a disability. That just feels wrong.

“I also really worry that when he’s 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. I would not change him for the world.

“He’s had some challenges and done so well so we’re just really proud of him.”

Sally Phillips, actress, comedian and mother to Ollie who has Down’s syndrome 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.”

A spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out, Lynn Murray 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.”

‘Screening out’ babies with Down’s syndrome seen as ‘cash cow’ for Chinese firm

A Chinese biotech firm has declared “screening out” babies with Down’s syndrome is a “cash cow” funding the growth of the whole business.

The admission comes 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.”

Responding to the video, parents of those with Down’s syndrome expressed shock and anger at the comments.  

One such mother commented: “She says ‘defect’, I say ‘difference’. That’s all it comes down to. And she had no answer to his questions about ethical implications.”

Another mother tweeted: “Well, we knew this inside, people try to cover it in CHOICE. But really, no. It’s profiting from discrimination. I actually feel sick.”

This isn’t the first time BGI group or it’s co-founder and Chairman, Wang Jian, has courted controversy.

In 2018, the businessman caught the media’s attention for saying in an interview it would be a “disgrace” for any of BGI Group’s 7,000 employees to have a child with a birth ‘defect’.

Wang said: “It would mean that we are fooling society and just eyeing others’ pockets.” He added that there are no known serious congenital diseases among the 1,400 infants that have been born to the company’s employees.

Wang doesn’t just want to eliminate children with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities, he also wants to promote a eugenicist mindset across the whole of China and prevent those with “a worrisome combination of genes” from having babies.

In the same interview, he said: “China has 85 million disabled [people], and 70 to 80% of these disabilities are from birth defects.

“We can really prevent this. We can do pre-marriage testing – to flag relationships in which partners carry a worrisome combination of genes – and prepregnant, prenatal.”

BGI Group’s core fertility business, BGI Genomics, generated more than half of the company’s revenue according to the company’s annual report.

The company claims it had processed over 4 million non-invasive prenatal tests globally by the end of 2018.

In its annual report, BGI group said “[translation] various product lines have been established in various fields of birth defect prevention” and expressed a desire to “expand” to prenatally diagnose for deafness and other genetic abnormalities.  

Figures published last year found the number of babies born with Down’s syndrome has dropped by 30% in NHS hospitals that have introduced new non-invasive prenatal tests.

The release of the figures came shortly after the release of a report revealing that pregnant mothers who refuse to abort their children with Down’s syndrome are being pressured by some medical professionals to change their decision.

Currently, 90% of babies with Down’s syndrome identified in the womb are aborted in England, Wales and Scotland.

A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson said:

“Our current law allows babies with Down’s syndrome to be aborted right through to birth. Already 90% of babies diagnosed in the womb with Down’s syndrome are aborted in Great Britain.

“The Government has previously admitted that no assessment was made of the impact the roll-out of non-invasive prenatal tests will have on the lives of people with Down’s syndrome. In an answer to a parliamentary question the Department of Health confirmed that ‘…no assessment was made of the impact of NIPT on the number of abortions, Down’s syndrome community and medical professional and society’s attitudes towards people with Down’s syndrome.’

“Now there is clear evidence the tests are leading to more babies with Down’s syndrome being aborted it’s time that the Government pulled the rollout, and stopped being a ‘cash cow’ for companies like BGI.”

“Our culture’s narrative of celebrating diversity and championing inclusion amount to nothing but empty words when as a society we develop and promote tests whose foreseeable consequence is the elimination of people with certain types of diversity.

“The fact that the birth rate of babies with Down syndrome has already fallen by 30% in hospitals where the test has been rolled out is scandalous and confirms campaigners’ fears.”

Down’s syndrome campaigner urges NI politicians to reject ‘discriminatory’ abortion laws

A campaigner with Down’s syndrome has urged Stormont to reject “hurtful and offensive” laws allowing abortion up to the point of birth for all disabilities, including cleft lip, club foot and Down’s syndrome, in Northern Ireland.

Last year, in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, politicians in Westminster voted to impose an extreme abortion regime on the province.

The Government was not required to introduce abortion for cleft lip, or other disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, to Northern Ireland.

Yet, to the dismay of disability advocacy groups, those with disabilities and their families, the Conservative Government have now introduced disability-selective abortion right up to birth.

The new regime, which also allows de facto abortion for any reason up to 24-weeks, came into force as law on 31 March.

An influential House of Lords Committee has released report which is highly critical of the new regulations.

Now, ahead of a parliamentary vote on the abortion regulations next week, Heidi Crowter has written to political party leaders in Northern Ireland requesting they reject any regulations from Westminster that allow discriminatory disability-selective abortions right up to birth.

In a letter to the Belfast Telegraph, the 24-year-old woman with Down’s syndrome said: “Boris Johnson’s Government did not have to introduce abortion for babies with Down’s syndrome up to birth to Northern Ireland. They chose to do this.

“That’s both hurtful and offensive. My life has as much value as anyone else’s.

“I am asking all MLA’s (Members of the Legislative Assembly) to reject Westminster’s regulations – please don’t vote for more discrimination against people like me.”

She added: “Do not make the mistake which was made in Great Britain in allowing discrimination against people like me just because we happen to have Down’s syndrome.

“Please let Northern Ireland continue to be a country where disabled people are valued.

“Please do not let a law come into practice which will end lives on the basis of disability and stop people like me coming into the world.”

Earlier this year, Heidi launched a landmark case against the UK Government over the discriminatory abortion law that allows disability-selective abortion right up to birth in England, Wales & Scotland.

Heidi’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 4,200,000 people have watched Heidi tell Channel 5 the current law is “deeply offensive” and many more have seen her tell the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that the current law makes her feel “unloved and unwanted”.

Her campaign has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media with people adding #ImWithHeidi to their posts.The mothers of children born with a cleft lip have also spoken out in horror against the new regime.

Babies with Down’s syndrome could be protected under proposed pro-life law in Poland

Poland’s parliament will consider pro-life legislation this week seeking to protect unborn babies from disability-selective abortion.

Unlike most of Europe, Poland protects unborn babies from abortion in most circumstances. Terminations are only permissible after rape or incest, if the mother’s life is at risk, or in cases of foetal abnormality – including Down’s syndrome.

The proposed legislation would remove the last provision and protect unborn babies from discriminatory disability-selective abortions.

Polling within the country has revealed there is strong support for pro-life measures in the country. A CBOS poll found that 75% of Polish people think abortion is “always wrong and can never be justified”. Meanwhile, only 7% thought there was “nothing wrong with it and could always be justified”.

Additionally, the proposed legislation comes from a Citizens’ Initiative which received support from over 830,000 Polish residents, indicating further strong support for a change in law.

Under Polish law, the parliament which formed following the October 2019 election, has a legal duty to consider any Citizens’ Initiative bills which receive over 100,000 signatures within 6 months of its formation – in this case by May 2020.

However, it is unclear how much support the ruling Law and Justice party will give the Bill despite it being submitted by one of their own MPs, Elzbieta Witek.

In 2016, the Law and Justice party initially supported a similar Citizens’ Initiative but then withdrew its support following protests from abortion activists.

Though the bill has strong support from the public, pro-life campaigners are wary that pressure from abortion activist groups pushing back aggressively to keep eugenic disability-selective abortions legal could see the Law and Justice party withdraw their support yet again.

A pro-abortion petition against the bill has signatures from 170 MPs, MEPs and senators from 24 European countries. However, only nine of the signatories are lawmakers from Poland.

President Andrzej Duda has indicated he will sign the Bill into law telling Polish publication Niedziela in a recent interview: “I believe that killing children with disabilities is simply murder. If a project opposing this issue will find itself on my desk, I will certainly sign it.”