Disability campaigners back reforms to discriminatory disability abortion law

Disability campaigners are urging MPs to support an amendment that has been tabled by a cross-party group of MPs to the Government’s Health and Care Bill to introduce an equal time limit for disability-selective abortions.

Amendment NC52 has been selected by the speaker and will be debated this afternoon at Report Stage of the Health and Care Bill.

Currently in England, Wales and Scotland, there is a general 24-week time limit for abortion, but if the baby has a disability, including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, abortion is legal right up to birth.

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.

A recent High Court case was brought against the Government for allowing disability discrimination in abortion by Heidi Crowter, 26, who has Down’s syndrome and Máire Lea-Wilson, whose son has Down’s syndrome. Ms Crowter has consistently described how the current law “makes me feel that my life is not as valuable as anyone else’s”, whilst Ms Lea-Wilson was “placed under intense pressure” to have an abortion after a 34-week scan revealed her son had Down’s syndrome. Ms Crowter and Ms Lea-Wilson are seeking permission for their case to be taken to the Court of Appeal.

There were 3,083 disability-selective abortions in 2020. 693 of these abortions were due to babies 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.

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.

Lynn Murray, spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out and mother of Rachel who has Down’s syndrome, said: “By stating that disability is grounds for termination, section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act, promotes inequality.

“The provision in the Abortion Act harks back to a time when we thought it was better for people with disabilities not to be part of our society. We’re a far more progressive society now, we realise that diversity is healthy, and all of our laws should reflect that.”

Fazilet Hadi, Head of Policy at Disability Rights UK said earlier this year that: “The law is discriminatory and being interpreted in discriminatory ways. This important legal case is challenging a fundamental discrimination, the lack of value placed on our lives as Disabled people.

“We saw how this failure to value our lives played out during the COVID pandemic, with Disabled people  being de-prioritised, our experiences denied and our voices dismissed.

“DR UK would ask the Government to bring forward changes to the Abortion Act as a matter of urgency.”