Tory peer fears for disabled babies if Northern Ireland abortion plans go ahead


Lord Shinkwin has told the House of Lords that plans to widen abortion access in Northern Ireland sends the message that babies with disabilities are "better off dead".

During a debate on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill last week, MPs controversially voted to bring abortion laws in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK if devolution is not restored by October 21. 

At present, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and terminations are only permitted in the province if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.  A foetal abnormality is not considered grounds for an abortion. 

Lord Shinkwin, who has brittle bone disease, told the House of Lords this week that Northern Ireland's low abortion rate for babies with Down's Syndrome was "cause for celebration" and evidence that disability equality "is actually respected there". 

"I do not take a position on abortion per se; I do, however, take a position on disability equality. What is proposed in the Bill drives a coach and horses through disability equality," he said.

"I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—indeed, whether anyone in the Government or in No. 10—has considered the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devoted parents and families of disabled children and, most importantly, to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland.

"Today, Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability. If the Bill is passed, that will change overnight on 21 October." 

According to latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, 52 children with Down's syndrome were born in 2016 while only one was aborted, with the procedure carried out in England and Wales.

The latest statistics for the UK show that there were 618 abortions for Down's syndrome in England and Wales in 2018, up from 436 in 2008.

Lynn Murray, a spokeswoman for the Don't Screen Us Out campaign and the mother of a child with Down's syndrome, said the planned changes to the law were "deeply concerning" and would lead to a "steep increase" in disability-selective abortion. 

"Abortion in the case of Down's syndrome is still so commonplace and widespread in most parts of the UK, but Northern Ireland currently has a very different approach when a baby is found to have Down's syndrome," she said.

"Disability-selective abortion for Down's syndrome is not allowed by law and there is a culture of accepting and supporting people with disabilities rather than eliminating them." 

A recent poll by ComRes found that most Tory councillors believe abortion laws should be decided by Northern Ireland. 

According to the survey, two-thirds of Conservative councillors (67%) said it should remain a devolved matter and decided by politicians in Northern Ireland.