Aborting the disabled: 'Wrongful birth' or unborn eugenics?


Christian communities can become alarmist when it comes to stories about biotechnology. In June 2013 the news that the UK would be the first country to permit what were called 'three parent babies' was reacted to with wide negativity among many in the Church. However many people became less concerned when it was properly explained that said babies would have 20,000 genes from their parents, and only 37 from an external female donor, and no embryos need be destroyed.

Given the fundamentality of life that comes with any attempt to deal with research and issues surrounding genetics and embryology, it's understandable that Christian communities become concerned. But we must be wary of becoming too sensitive and criticising too often lest our protests be ignored as expected and clichéd when a really important issue emerges. An important issue like the slowly rising number of 'wrongful birth' cases, the lack of legal protections around sex selective abortion, and the question of whether or not we are sleepwalking into a situation of eugenics for the unborn.

Since 1990 it has been possible, at least in the US certainly, for people to use IVF to pre-select a baby's sex (albeit at tremendous expense of $500,000 US), but it has been widely understood that in the UK it isn't legal to abort a pregnancy purely on the basis of whether it is male or female. After all, this is a practice that has resulted in a massive gender imbalance in China and many other parts of South Eastern Asia and only emerges because of what even many in China would regard as outdated gender role politics and archaic views about the place of women and their lesser position in failing to bear the family name in marriage. Surely such practices couldn't have a home in the UK?

Since October 2013 that hasn't been clear. The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, made the decision in the earlier part of that month to not prosecute two doctors secretly filmed by the Daily Telegraph permitting a gender-motivated elective abortion. In an expanded memorandum explaining the situation, Mr Starmer said: "The law does not, in terms, expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions; rather it prohibits any abortion carried out without two medical practitioners having formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination."

But this assurance counts for very little, since Mr Starmer also revealed that this two-medical professional signature defence is routinely circumvented. Indeed, he said that "an abortion can be performed without either medical practitioner having actual direct contact with the woman requesting an abortion".

As much as medical professionals are intelligent and accomplished people, it's difficult to see how they can make a judgement about whether or not the risks of continuing the pregnancy outweigh those of an abortion without actually meeting the pregnant woman in question. A Care Quality Commission investigation revealed that in Hereford, 10 out of 20 forms permitting an abortion were "pre-signed" before the doctors ever met the patients, and out of a later investigation of 463 abortion cases, 236 of them contained photocopied signatures. Despite these findings however, no prosecutions have been brought forward.

Mr Starmer also admitted: "The discretion afforded to doctors under the current law in assessing the risk to the mental or physical health of a patient is wide and, having consulted an experienced consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, it appears that there is no generally accepted approach among the medical profession."

This lack of accepted medical procedure for the justification of abortions has also been highlighted in New Zealand. David Fergusson, a psychology professor from the University of Otago last month published new research revealing that despite 90% of pregnancy terminations in NZ being justified on mental health grounds, abortions in fact are associated with small to moderate increases in anxiety, alcohol misuse, illicit drug use and suicidal behaviour. Describing this issue as an "elephant in the room", Fergusson claimed that the law in NZ had been subverted to allow a large number of women to have abortions. Essentially, Fergusson argued, doctors were making decisions "on the basis of diagnostic criteria for which they have no evidence".

This seeming complete lack of understanding and proper oversight of the means by which an abortion can be legally justified is made even more startling when you factor in the 'wrongful birth' lawsuits that have cost the NHS £54 million over the previous half decade. The most recent case is that of Joanne Chinnock who is suing the law firm Veale Wasbrough and barrister Karen Rea for professional negligence after they advised the dropping of a case against Liverpool Women's Hospital NHS in 2001.

Ms Chinnock's daughter Bethany died at age 11 after having suffered a rare chromosomal disease that left her essentially blind and in near constant pain. Ms Chinnock claims that had she known there was a one in thirteen chance that her child would have had such a condition, she would have opted for an abortion. She had made such feelings clear to her doctors, and yet they had not told her about the chances, and had not performed several of the necessary tests to properly confirm the situation. Given these facts, the legal firm should have acted more swiftly and decisively when it came to their lawsuit against the hospital. At the present time, the case is ongoing.

What's concerning here is not so much the case itself, but rather that such procedures are possible at all. We are apparently in a legal situation where it's acceptable to euthanise someone before they are even born. Not only that, but the safeguards preventing such a decision being made poorly or for the wrong reasons are incredibly lax, and making a mistake doesn't seem to carry with it any repercussions.

To have a situation where doctors can make medical judgements about abortions without ever meeting the patients and where abortions can be offered on the basis of disability, while doctors are essentially re-writing the definition of a 'mental health issue' in order to maximise the availability of abortions, is deeply concerning. Although it is true that the mental health issue mentioned is happening in NZ, it is difficult to see how being in a different country with a similar level of development is likely to change the question of whether abortion is detrimental or otherwise to a person's mental health.

As Christians, we have a fundamental set of duties here. First and foremost, to step in and make ourselves more available to help shoulder the burden of those who feel they have so little choice but to terminate their child, and second to speak out loudly and clearly against the idea that anyone should have the power to choose whether a child lives or dies just because it has not yet been born.

The kinds of policies we are seeing are not unreasonably likened to eugenics. Selecting a child to avoid disability before it is even born. Such a description is not made without compassion, and Christians should be the first in line to offer real physical supplication of need to parents toiling under the burden of caring for a severely disabled child. But the softness of such compassion should be born out of a steely resolve that the 'alternative' of disability selective abortions, otherwise known as eugenics of the unborn, should never be realised.