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/

Court of Appeal will hear challenge against ‘DIY’ home abortions

The Court of Appeal has granted permission to hear a challenge against the UK Government’s decision to introduce ‘DIY’ home abortions.

The legal challenge being brought forward by the Christian Legal Centre was initially rejected by the High Court back in May.

However, the Court of Appeal has now granted permission for judicial review.

Significant problems

Since ‘DIY’ home abortions were introduced on 30 March, a number of significant problems have arisen.

In May, it was revealed UK police were investigating the death of an unborn baby after its mother took ‘DIY’ home abortion pills while 28 weeks pregnant.

In addition, abortion provider BPAS announced that it was investigating a further eight cases of women taking ‘DIY’ home abortion pills beyond the 10-week limit, raising questions over what checks are being conducted to ensure the law isn’t being broken and dangerous later-term abortions aren’t happening. 

A number of women have also come forward to share the serious problems they’ve experienced after taking ‘DIY’ home abortion pills.

One woman said she went through “hell” and thought she was going to die after taking the dangerous pills.

Another woman said the pain and physical process was “horrible” and “a lot worse than expected”.

Government’s dangerous U-turn allowing ‘DIY’ home abortions

Despite assurances from the Government that there would be “no change” to abortion regulations and that in-person consultations remain “an essential safeguard” for women, the Government brought in a policy allowing ‘DIY’ home abortions shortly after lockdown began.

The very substantial change was made without any public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny or debate.

Prior to the change in regulations, abortions could only take place in hospitals or abortion clinics approved by the Secretary of State.

Under the new ‘temporary’ policy, doctors are able to prescribe mifepristone and misoprostol over the phone or video platforms such as Facetime or Skype, meaning women will be left to pass their unborn child at home without direct medical supervision.

The Government had initially stated its intention to allow ‘DIY’ abortions on 23 March, but backtracked later that day claiming the announcement had been “published in error.”

The government web page that had published the changes instead had the following message for visitors: “The information on this page has been removed because it was published in error. This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations.”

Just one day later, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock reassured the House of Commons that there would be no change to any abortion laws in response to COVID-19.

Additionally, Health Minister Lord Bethell made it very clear that there were significant safety and safeguarding issues for women and young girls with the proposal. 

As the Coronavirus Bill was brought to the House of Lords on Wednesday 25 March, Lord Bethell rejected strongly, on behalf of the Government, the proposed changes to abortion law, stating:

“….we do not agree that women should be able to take both treatments for medical abortion at home. We believe that it is an essential safeguard that a woman attends a clinic, to ensure that she has an opportunity to be seen alone and to ensure that there are no issues.

“Do we really want to support an amendment that could remove the only opportunity many women have, often at a most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and about what the alternatives might be? The bottom line is that, if there is an abusive relationship and no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman could be pressured into have an abortion by an abusive partner.”

He also made it clear that it would be inappropriate to make this change without parliamentary scrutiny: “It is not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”

Despite these clear statements, the Government went against its own warnings and, in an incredible double U-turn, announced on 30 March it would allow ‘DIY’ home abortions.

Through their legal challenge, the Christian Legal Centre wants the dangerous legislation overturned immediately and full disclosure of the Government’s decision-making process and rationale.

Serious risk of harm and coercion

Their case is being backed by former Government Minister Ann Widdecombe and Dr Gregory Gardner.

In an expert witness statement for the High Court challenge, Dr Gregory Gardner, a longstanding GP and honorary clinical lecturer at the University of Birmingham, highlights the risk of serious injury and harm to women self-administering abortion pills.

“The introduction of home abortions as proposed (notwithstanding the presence of a Covid-19 pandemic) is a policy that is more likely than not to depart from the essential tenets of duty of care through proper clinical assessment, thereby raising the risk of serious injury and harm being done to women self-administering Mifepristone and Misoprostol at home,” Dr Gardner wrote.

In addition to citing risks of infection, haemorrhage, psychological trauma, and risk of future preterm birth, Dr Gardner explains how the Government’s decision could result in more women being coerced into unwanted abortions.

He said: “It will be difficult if not impossible to verify by phone or video whether a woman is undergoing any kind of duress to have an abortion. There does not seem to have been any consideration given to this in the proposed change in policy. There will be women who need delicate counselling to discover coercion or other forms of abuse.”

Former Government minister Ann Widdecombe has also written a statement to the high court in support of the legal challenge.

In her statement, the former Shadow Health Secretary reveals the history of the legislation which has enabled health services in England, Scotland & Wales to roll out ‘DIY’ abortions.

During a parliamentary debate in 1990, Miss Widdecombe raised concerns that an amendment to abortion legislation, allowing the Health Secretary to designate “a class of places” as suitable for abortions would inadvertently pave the way for ‘DIY’ home abortions.

However, the author of the amendment, Robert Key MP, dismissed Miss Widdecombe’s concerns and accused the then Conservative MP of speaking from “the whip issued by the pro-life group” and misleading Parliament.

The Health Secretary at the time, Kenneth Clarke, then assured MPs that the legislation was not intended to legalise home abortions and that abortions would be “administered only in closely regulated circumstances under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner”.

Now, 30 years later, Ann Widdecombe’s previously dismissed concerns have become a reality.

When the legal challenge was launched, Ann Widdecombe said: “Parliament was told one thing. Government is doing another and that says it all.”

Legal challenge against dangerous ‘DIY’ abortions to be heard tomorrow

The UK Government’s decision to introduce ‘DIY’ home abortions will be challenged at the High Court tomorrow. 

The legal challenge has been brought forward by the Christian Legal Centre who will argue that the decision making process ahead of making the substantial change was unlawful, undemocratic and unsafe for thousands of pregnant women at an already highly vulnerable time.

Despite assurances from the Government that there would be “no change” to abortion regulations and that an in-person consultation are “an essential safeguard” for women, the policy was brought in shortly after lockdown began.

The very substantial change is not only the biggest change to abortion law since it was passed in 1967, but was made without any public consultation, parliamentary scrutiny or debate.

Prior to the change in regulations, abortions could only take place in hospitals or abortion clinics approved by the Secretary of State.

Under the new ‘temporary’ policy, doctors will be able to prescribe mifepristone and misoprostol over the phone or video platforms such as Facetime or Skype, meaning they will be left to pass their unborn child at home without direct medical supervision.

Tomorrow, the role of the abortion industry, senior civil servants and their influence on the ministers in the Department for Health and Social Care will come under scrutiny.

Government’s incredible U-turn

The Government had initially stated its intention to allow ‘DIY’ abortions on 23 March, but backtracked later that day claiming the announcement had been “published in error.”

The government web page that had published the changes instead had the following message for visitors: “The information on this page has been removed because it was published in error. This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations.”

Just one day later, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock reassured the House of Commons that there would be no change to any abortion laws in response to COVID-19.

Additionally, Health Minister Lord Bethell made it very clear that there were significant safety and safeguarding issues for women and young girls with the proposal. 

As the Coronavirus Bill was brought to the House of Lords on Wednesday 25 March Lord Bethell rejected strongly on behalf of the Government the proposed changes to abortion law, stating:

“….we do not agree that women should be able to take both treatments for medical abortion at home. We believe that it is an essential safeguard that a woman attends a clinic, to ensure that she has an opportunity to be seen alone and to ensure that there are no issues.

“Do we really want to support an amendment that could remove the only opportunity many women have, often at a most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and about what the alternatives might be? The bottom line is that, if there is an abusive relationship and no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman could be pressured into have an abortion by an abusive partner.”

He also made it clear that it would be inappropriate to make this change without parliamentary scrutiny:

“It is not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”

Despite these clear statements, the Government went against its own warnings and in an incredible double U-turn announced on 30 March it would allow ‘DIY’ home abortions.

Through their legal challenge, the Christian Legal Centre wants the dangerous legislation overturned immediately and full disclosure of the Government’s decision-making process and rationale.

Serious risk of harm and coercion

Their case has been backed by former Government Minister Ann Widdecombe and Dr Gregory Gardner.

In an expert witness statement for the High Court challenge, Dr Gregory Gardner, a longstanding GP and honorary clinical lecturer at the University of Birmingham, highlights the risk of serious injury and harm to women self-administering abortion pills.

“The introduction of home abortions as proposed (notwithstanding the presence of a Covid-19 pandemic) is a policy that is more likely than not to depart from the essential tenets of duty of care through proper clinical assessment, thereby raising the risk of serious injury and harm being done to women self-administering Mifepristone and Misoprostol at home,” Dr Gardner wrote.

In addition to citing risks of infection, haemorrhage, psychological trauma, and risk of future preterm birth, Dr Gardner explains how the Government’s decision could result in more women being coerced into unwanted abortions.

He said: “It will be difficult if not impossible to verify by phone or video whether a woman is undergoing any kind of duress to have an abortion. There does not seem to have been any consideration given to this in the proposed change in policy. There will be women who need delicate counselling to discover coercion or other forms of abuse.”

Former Government minister Ann Widdecombe has also written a statement to the high court in support of the legal challenge.

In her statement, the former Shadow Health Secretary reveals the history of the legislation which has enabled health services in England, Scotland & Wales to roll out ‘DIY’ abortions.

During a parliamentary debate in 1990, Miss Widdecombe raised concerns that an amendment to abortion legislation, allowing the Health Secretary to designate “a class of places” as suitable for abortions would inadvertently pave the way for ‘DIY’ home abortions.

However, the author of the amendment, Robert Key MP, dismissed Miss Widdecombe’s concerns and accused the then Conservative MP of speaking from “the whip issued by the pro-life group” and misleading Parliament.

The Health Secretary at the time, Kenneth Clarke, then assured MPs that the legislation was not intended to legalise home abortions and that abortions would only be “administered only in closely regulated circumstances under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner”.

30 years later, Ann Widdecombe’s then dismissed concerns have become a reality.

When the legal challenge was launched, Ann Widdecombe said: “Parliament was told one thing. Government is doing another and that says it all.”

Coronavirus exploited

Ahead of the tomorrow’s Judicial Review, Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Concern, said: “UK Parliament was explicitly told on March 24 by the government that there were no plans to change the rules on access to abortion in response to Covid-19 as the risks were too high to the women involved. Only a week later the government seems to have capitulated to the pressure of the abortion lobby by doing a U-turn.

“The government changed the law on a matter of life and death without reference to parliament. The government did this after expressly stating on the floor of the House of Commons and House of Lords that this would not happen.

“The UK government is going to extraordinary lengths to protect lives due to the threat of Covid-19. It appears to fail to see the irony in opening up access to abortion and counting the lives that will be lost as a result of such action.

“If this practice goes unchallenged there will be no going back and that is tragic for women and their children.

“The coronavirus crisis is being exploited, not just in the UK, but globally, to make changes to abortion law which would not be possible under properly functioning democracies.

“This is nothing less than a fight to preserve our hard-won democratic freedoms which do not allow the government to make changes to the law on a whim with no accountability.”

Mother to take major pro-life case to European Court of Human Rights

The use of criminalised free speech zones (‘buffer zones’) around abortion clinics will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), by a mother who received pro-life help the zones criminalise.

Earlier this year, the UK Supreme Court refused to hear the legal challenge against Ealing Council’s Public Space Protection Order which criminalises offering emotional and practical support outside the Marie Stopes International abortion clinic in West London.

Alina Dulgheriu had wanted to challenge the criminalised free speech zone after receiving support from pro-life campaigners outside an abortion clinic several years ago – support which led to her keeping her unborn baby, Sarah.  

Alina launched a legal fight against the Council’s Public Space Protection Order in April 2018 because she wants other potential mothers to receive the same help she was offered, and because it prevents the help some women need to escape an unwanted or coerced abortion.

The High Court accepted that her rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly had been infringed, but ultimately upheld Ealing’s criminalised free speech zone.

The Court of Appeal had granted permission for the challenge to be appealed, but also sided with Ealing Council in a ruling last year.

The UK Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Alina’s case means her only legal option is to take her case to the ECHR.

Today, it was announced, Alina’s legal team are working on her application to the European Court of Human Rights, which marks the final court of appeal for her case. ECHR judgements affect around 800 million people across Europe, including the United Kingdom. 

Before it had been displaced by the criminalised free speech zone, the pro-life demonstration outside the MSI abortion clinic in Ealing had seen more than 500 women accept an offer of help which led to them choosing to keep their baby rather than have an abortion.

Additionally, in 2017, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee heard that there was no probative evidence to suggest women were being harassed outside abortion facilities, whether in Ealing, Portsmouth, Birmingham, or elsewhere in the country.

In contrast, the Be Here for Me website tells just some of the many stories of women who have been helped by people outside abortion clinics – including some of mothers from Ealing.

In a similar case, a PSPO passed by Richmond Council has been challenged by Justyna Pasek, who has personally supported women visiting the abortion clinic in Richmond for over five years.

Last year, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan reiterated his support for criminalised free speech zones. In 2018, he claimed that those living in London would be “deeply disappointed” over the then Home Secretary’s decision not to roll out ‘buffer zones’ nationwide.

Meanwhile the former Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, chose not to introduce nationwide criminalised free speech zones. He said that such a move would not be proportionate in light of the ‘passive’ nature of activities outside of abortion clinics, as well as the existing powers of local councils and police.

Prominent human rights campaigners, including those who would describe themselves as pro-abortion and ‘pro-choice’, seem to agree. A number of them have expressed their concerns about the ease with which the use of criminalised free speech zones allow councils to override basic human rights law. 

Alina’s case can continue because of the many donors who have contributed over £65,000 to her legal fund

Alina Dulgheriu, who has brought legal action against Ealing Council said:

“My little girl is here today because of the real practical and emotional support that I was given by a group outside a Marie Stopes centre, and I am going to appeal this decision to ensure that women do not have this vital support option removed.

“I will continue to stand up for the women whose voices have been sidelined throughout this process and for women who need life-saving support today but cannot get it. 

“Ealing Council could have taken action in a way that would have protected women and safeguarded the essential help offered at the gate. Instead, they criminalised charity and attempted to remove dedicated and caring individuals from public space without justification.

“It is very clear that many are opposed to Ealing’s ban on peaceful and charitable activity, and like me, they want to see support available to vulnerable women where it is most needed. 

“I cannot imagine a society where a simple offer of help to a woman who might want to keep her child is seen as a criminal offence. I refuse to accept that women should be denied the opportunity to receive help where they want to keep their child.”

Elizabeth Howard, Be Here For Me spokesperson said: 

Eight years ago, Alina Dulgheriu found herself jobless, homeless and alone after an unplanned pregnancy. She’d been fired from her job as a live-in nanny and abandoned by her boyfriend. 

“She went to Marie Stopes to get advice on her options, but all they could offer her was an abortion. She didn’t want that but didn’t know where to turn.

“Her life was changed when she met a pro-life volunteer at the gates of the abortion centre who told her that she did have options, that there was help available, and that she could keep her baby if she wanted.

“She accepted the offer of help and her daughter Sarah was born. She is now seven years old, a beautiful, lively and beloved child.

“Ealing Council has banned pro-lifers from helping women like Alina. Alina has challenged their decision in court, but three times the courts have ignored her story.

“In five years of the pro-life vigil’s work in Ealing, more than 500 women accepted an offer of help and chose to keep their baby rather than have an abortion. These women have tried again and again to have their voices heard, but they are ignored.”

Clare Mulvany, Be Here For Me spokesperson said: 

“The mothers of Be Here for Me are angry that their own experiences, and the help they have sought to pass on to others in their shoes, have been ignored and denied. 

We share their anger and deep resolve. 

“No one can claim to uphold a right to choose whilst supporting the stripping away of all but one choice. 

“These women and their powerful stories must be made more visible. 

“Alina is resolute.

“We understand that she intends to appeal and she has our full support in this”.