The UK Court of Appeal will hold a hearing in a landmark case to stop killing babies with Down syndrome in abortions up to birth. The news is a victory for Heidi Crowter, 26, who has Down’s syndrome and Máire Lea-Wilson, who has a two-year-old son with Down’s syndrome.
The plaintiffs argue that the abortion law in the UK is discriminatory because abortion is available up to birth if the unborn child has a disability such as Down’s syndrome, whereas if the baby is not disabled, abortion is restricted after 24 weeks.
They had their case against the Government dismissed by the High Court but they permission to go to the Court of Appeal. Today, that court agreed to take their appeal.
Heidi Crowter is a self-advocate who has campaigned for the last five years for equal treatment for those with Down’s syndrome in all areas of life. Máire Lea-Wilson was placed under pressure to have an abortion when a 34-week scan revealed her son had Down’s syndrome. Heidi and her team have crowdfunded over £125,000 for the case.
Crowter was delighted that the court will take the case.
“The law says that babies shouldn’t be aborted up to birth, but if a baby is found to have Down’s syndrome, it can be aborted up until birth. This is the current law in the UK and I think it’s not fair,” she said. “People like me are considered to be ‘seriously handicapped’, but I think using that phrase for a clause in abortion law is so out of date.”
“People shouldn’t be treated differently because of their disabilities, it’s downright discrimination,” she added.
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The number of babies with Down syndrome killed in the UK is startling.
There were 3,083 disability-selective abortions in 2020. 693 of these abortions were due to babies being diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, an increase of 5.64% from 656 in 2019. The actual figures are likely to be much higher – a 2013 review showed 886 fetuses were aborted for Down’s syndrome in England and Wales in 2010 but only 482 were reported in Department of Health records. The underreporting was confirmed by a 2014 Department of Health review.
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries that 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 so that it does not single out babies with disabilities. The Government has decided to ignore this recommendation.
The Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) has 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 proposed 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. The Bill was supported by Disability Rights UK.
Boris Johnson’s Government introduced new abortion regulations to Northern Ireland last March. The regulations that the Northern Ireland Office introduced allow abortion up to birth for disabilities including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot. 1,875 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. Westminster recently approved regulations that give the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, power to compel the Northern Ireland Executive to commission full abortion services across 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 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 next stage of the case visit:www.crowdjustice.com/case/downrightdiscrimination/