Philippa Taylor

Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability – a chance to remove discriminatory laws?

Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at CMF. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

For the first time for years a cross Parliamentary group will be thoroughly reviewing the law on abortion for disability, with a particular focus on whether it is discriminatory or not.

The Abortion Act 1967[1] sets no time limit on when an abortion may take place on grounds of disability (Ground E). Therefore it is currently legal to terminate a pregnancy up to full-term on these grounds.

However the upper limit is 24 weeks if there is no disability.

The Equality Act 2010 aims to protect disabled people from discrimination. The Act prohibits discrimination arising from a disability by preventing one person from treating another less favourably because of their disability.

So part of the Inquiry’s remit is to assess whether the differentiation between abortion on the grounds of disability and non-disability is discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010.   The Chair of the Inquiry and driver behind it, Fiona Bruce MP, said that the group will seek to ‘establish whether there is room for a review of this legislation bearing in mind both medical advances and advances in our attitudes to disability over recent years.’ The panel includes Baroness Hollins, a cross-bench peer and president of the British Medical Association.

The Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability is now seeking evidence from parents, medical practitioners, academics, support groups, disability groups, lawyers and individuals with an interest regarding the current theory, practice and implications of the approach to abortion on the grounds of disability in the UK.

According to Department of Health statistics 2,307 abortions were carried out in 2011 under Abortion Act 1967 Ground E, for disability.  There were 146 abortions after the 24 week limit. More than 500 abortions followed screening for Down’s syndrome.

This issue is one that is close to Fiona’s Bruce’s heart. In a speech in Parliament late last year she said the following, adding in a comment at the end reflecting how personal this issue is to her:

‘I am delighted that here in Britain we are doing more than ever to help those with disabilities, but we have a paradox. A child diagnosed with a disability can be aborted up to and even during birth, but the minute that the child is born a whole panoply of rights and medical and social support comes into play for that child, and quite rightly so. The child is born with rights protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The law is therefore at odds. The Disability Rights Commission states that a law that permits abortions at any time up to birth for disability alone ‘reinforces negative stereotypes of disability; and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations’ for such a reason is something that needs to be reviewed.

I ask the Minister to look into that law, given equality and diversity legislation. My son has a club foot, which is a disability that under the present law of the land permits abortion up to birth, but it is an entirely correctable defect.

Interestingly, one area that the Inquiry will be looking at is the data that is currently collected on abortion on the grounds of disability.  Peter Saunders recently highlighted Department of Health statistics which appear to be grossly under-reporting the true number of abortions for Down’s syndrome.  He showed that the figures recorded by the Department of Health were significantly lower than the number recorded by the National Down’s Syndrome Cytogenic Statistics’ (NDSCS) database. This anomaly has been since been picked up by a newspaper and is now the subject of a  government investigation.

Peter Saunders goes on to ask:

‘Might it actually be that only half of all abortions for any fetal abnormality are being reported?’

Whatever view one holds on abortion, the existence of laws that actively discriminate against the disabled baby, as is the current state of practice, are highly controversial. Even Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who is implacably opposed to any change in the law on abortion, and who immediately penned an article in the Daily Telegraph against this Inquiry, admits that:

We will all have different views on abortion for fetal abnormality. They are the most controversial of abortions and arguably the most tragic for often they involve wanted, planned-for pregnancies.’

(Note here a strong rebuttal to Furedi’s article by SavingDowns.)

I strongly encourage as many people as possible to respond to the Inquiry request for information and to suggest ways in which support for families can be improved following news that their child may have a disability.

Evidence and information is needed on all aspects of this issue, from law, guidance and data collection to information, care and support for families with disabled children or adults, or those who have had an abortion under Ground E, so please contribute!

The last words of this blog are best left to Saving Downs (it is worth reading their open letter in full):

‘This inquiry is exactly what the disability community needs: the removal of discriminatory laws against the disabled.

This inquiry is also exactly want parents facing an unexpected diagnosis need: a positive step towards a new life affirming environment where their children will be welcomed and supported with loving care and acceptance.

The time has come for the full recognition of human rights for the disabled and this inquiry is a welcome step in that direction.’

Written evidence submissions will be accepted until 6 March. The form and guidance can be downloaded here.

 


[1] As amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy
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