‘Wrongful Births’: The NHS spends millions in compensation… for babies being born

Andre is CMF's junior researcher in Public Policy and Advocacy.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

A recent response by the Government to a Parliamentary question on so-called ‘wrongful birth’ cases has revealed some startling findings. Although perhaps ‘shocking’ may be a more appropriate word.

Government figures show that the NHS has paid out more than £114 million since 1995 on 156 successful claims for damages from parents wanting compensation for the birth of a disabled child. Payments over the lifetime of the claim are calculated to reach just under £124 million. This does not include failed vasectomy or sterilisation claims.

It has been commonly assumed that these kinds of ‘wrongful birth’ claims are for damages based on the extra cost to parents for raising an unexpectedly disabled child.  And in just over half of the successful cases in the UK, this has been true.

Such claims are based on the disability of a child, and include several pay-outs to parents for babies born with Down’s Syndrome. The payment for the two cases in which this has occurred has reached almost £7.5 million, with a total of almost £10.5 million calculated over the lifetime of the claims.

These claims are controversial enough as they reinforce the view that the birth of a child with a disability is a harm and a mistake for which one may be compensated.  Undoubtedly for some parents there will also be a genuine need for practical support and monetary help. Where there is disability, there must be assistance, but surely the focus should be on the needs of the child rather than legal costs and a compensation mentality.

It is difficult to compare the figures to those released two years ago, due to the different time period involved (current report is 1995 to 2017, while the previous report is 2003 to 2014) and because the current report does not take failed vasectomy or sterilisation claims into account, which explains the discrepancy in numbers of claims. This makes it is difficult to say if the £124m of the new report represents an increase from the £95m of the older one.

Yet we can certainly all recognise that this is a vast amount of money for the NHS to be paying out. What we have learnt for sure from the new statistics is that Down’s Syndrome compensation is much more expensive than other types, as this makes up just over 1% of the claims, but almost 8.5% of total pay-outs.

Moreover, if this practice continues, where can a line ever be drawn in the expansion of the right to sue?  If claiming successfully for ‘failed sterilisation and contraception’, why not for all other failed contraceptives? If claiming successfully for ‘inaccurate fertility advice’, why not for failure to provide teenagers with contraceptives?

And what effect will these claims have, psychologically, on the children themselves, as they grow up, knowing full well that their birth was agreed to be an expensive ‘mistake’ and they should never have been born? It can be linked to problems around disability discrimination, about which the campaign, We’re All Equal, seeks to raise awareness and campaign against. They have recently been focussing on equality for disabled fetuses in regards to abortion limits (see more here).

It is no secret that fetuses with disabilities are often the first to be aborted, which raises concerns about the recent acceptance of the improved detection methods of NIPT. But those who are detected with potential disabilities can still grow up to have a meaningful life with many contributions to society, as Stig Abell self-revealed on LBC, saying that he could have been classified as a ‘wrongful birth’. .

Yet even healthy babies can be the subject of claims, if contraception or termination failed. The Daily Mail quoted Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali in 2014, saying that:

‘A healthy child is an occasion for thanksgiving rather than for taking the NHS to the cleaners and using up precious funds which could otherwise be more usefully employed.’

‘Wrongful birth claims’ cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, and this is likely to increase. But the reinforcement of a culture that sees disabled and unplanned children as mistakes and burdens to be avoided at any cost is far more concerning. This may have significant negative psychological effects on children as they grow up.  It could hardly be more opposite to the Psalmist’s view of children as a blessing, a reward and a gift from the Lord (Psalm 127).

There should be no such thing as ‘an unwanted’ child. Every child must be treated as a gift, not merely as a burden, even (perhaps especially) if there is disability. We must foster a culture where human lives are valued for their own sake.

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