Call to end 'discrimination' against unborn disabled children

Published 17 July 2013  |  

A major new parliamentary report is calling for urgent reform of the Abortion Act to remove the possibility of aborting disabled babies up to birth.

The report says current legislation is outdated and amounts to "discrimination against unborn children".

"It is time to review the moral, ethical, legal and practical framework within which this provision of the Abortion Act operates and how the law applies to a fetus beyond the age of viability," the report states.

The report recommends that Parliament consider reducing the upper time limit for abortions on the grounds of disability from birth to make it equal to the 24 weeks upper limit for non-disabled babies, or repealing Section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act altogether.

Section 1(1)(d) of the 1967 Abortion Act permits the termination of a pregnancy up to birth if there is a substantial risk of the baby being born with a serious disability. However, the law does not define these criteria and campaigners say they are broadly interpreted.

According to figures from the Department of Health, there were 2,692 abortions carried out on these grounds in 2012, a 17% increase on the previous year. Of these abortions, 160 took place after 24 weeks.

The report has been drawn up by a cross-party commission chaired by Conservative backbench MP Fiona Bruce.

The commission expressed concern that some treatable conditions were still being used to justify abortion on the grounds of disability, including several cases of abortions for cleft palate and clubfoot.

The commission heard evidence from Professor Joan Morris that there had been an estimated seven terminations in the last decade carried out because of a cleft lip and an estimated five for club foot, although she said there were no reliable figures.

Other evidence presented to the commission said that around a quarter of all abortions on grounds of disability (512) were carried out because of Down's Syndrome diagnoses and that around 90% of babies diagnosed with Down's Syndrome were aborted.

The commission rejected calls for a list of conditions to be published that would meet the "seriously handicapped" criteria as "such a list would inevitably discriminate, on arbitrary and subjective grounds".

"This is an incredibly difficult and emotive issue, which for too long governments of all colours have failed to properly review," said Mrs Bruce.

"In part this is due to the very strong feelings on both side of the debate, usually traduced to an argument between pro-choice and pro-life, but as one respondent told the Commission, 'I defend the right of a newly-pregnant woman to seek an abortion for personal reasons, but I do not accept that a disabled baby should be aborted purely because of the existence of the disability. Lives of disabled people are in general of great value and quality and medical advances are such that it (abortion on grounds of disability) seems unnecessary.'"

Mrs Bruce continued: "Given the advances in medical science and the very positive changes in our attitudes towards disabled people since the relevant law was enacted over twenty years ago it is time to review it."

Disability rights campaigner, Mike Sullivan of Saving Downs said the law should be changed to reflect the fact that Down's Syndrome was no longer considered to be a "serious handicap".

He said decades of experience and research on the lives of those with Down's Syndrome proved "beyond a doubt" that Down's Syndrome does not meet the criteria for serious disability.

Mrs Bruce said she hoped the commission's findings would kickstart a debate on the abortion of disabled babies.

She added that there was a need for the law to be applied more uniformly across the country, saying that at present it ranged from "the exceptional to the appalling".

"We heard how parents can find themselves only being given a leaflet on abortion, after being told the shattering news that their unborn baby could be disabled, rather than a support package and information on the specific condition diagnosed," she said.

"Some parents told us they felt pressured into having an abortion and that they had to find out for themselves from the internet information about the condition diagnosed and any potential support for them should they choose to keep their baby.

"We also heard good examples of support and counselling, and one of the most important of our proposals is to recommend that best practice guidelines are developed to ensure parents are provided with practical and balanced information from trained experts as soon as possible after discovery of a fetal disability, so they can make an informed choice.

"As one parent told us, summarising what many others reported: 'To give a family a diagnosis of a disability and then to immediately follow that up with the advice that they can have a termination without any other information is simply not acceptable in a civilised society.'"

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