In the United Kingdom, activists are pushing to reform the country’s abortion law to protect unborn children diagnosed with nonfatal disabilities, including Down syndrome, clubfoot, or cleft palate. Under the 1967 Abortion Act, women are permitted to obtain an abortion in such cases at any point until birth.
Current U.K. law permits elective abortion only until twelve weeks’ gestation. After that point, abortions are permitted up to 24 weeks if two doctors say that having a baby would be a greater risk to the mother’s physical or mental health than abortion would be. Abortion is allowed after 24 weeks only if the woman’s life is at risk, she is deemed at risk of physical or mental injury, or doctors diagnose her child with fetal “abnormalities.”
Pro-life activists take issue with this last exception, which makes abortion legal until birth when “there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.” Advocates for reforming the law say this discriminates against those with disabilities and assumes that their lives are less valuable.
A cross-party group of U.K. lawmakers has just introduced a bill that would prohibit late-term abortions chosen because of a prenatal diagnosis of clubfoot, cleft lip, or cleft palate. All three conditions can be surgically treated, and nonsurgical therapy for clubfoot is almost always successful, but hundreds of women in the U.K. have chosen late-term abortion after receiving such a diagnosis.
Meanwhile, many oppose the Abortion Act’s exception for “abnormalities” because of the way it affects unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome. One of the foremost opponents of the carveout is Heidi Crowter, a young woman with Down syndrome, who in a recent BBC interview called the provision “deeply offensive” and said it made her feel “unloved and unwanted.”
Crowter’s mother, Liz, is also campaigning against the law, saying U.K. policy should affirm that “all babies in the womb are treated the same.” Liz Crowter is one of several mothers of children with Down syndrome who have become vocal advocates against the law.
In another BBC interview, Cheryl Bilsborrow — mother of a two-year-old son, Hector, who has Down syndrome — called the exception “downright discrimination” and said she believes that “all babies and children should be treated equal.” Bilsborrow told the interviewer that when she was pregnant with Hector, her doctor pushed her to obtain a prenatal diagnosis to see if her son had the condition. She also said that she felt “pressured to terminate” after subsequently finding out he had tested positive. According to Bilsborrow, three days before she gave birth, a health-care professional offered her a late-term abortion.
“You do know we still terminate babies with Down syndrome at 38 weeks?” the doctor allegedly asked her.
“I was completely blown away, shocked, and disgusted,” Bilsborrow said in the interview.
Another mother, Maire Lea-Wilson, has taken her activism a step further, suing the U.K. government over the Abortion Act’s provision. Lea-Wilson says doctors at her hospital assumed “that you would want to abort a child with Down syndrome” and that they pushed her to choose abortion when she was pregnant with her son Aidan, who is now eleven months old.
“The first thing that they wanted to talk about was whether we wanted to terminate the pregnancy, and I was 34 weeks pregnant at the time, so it was quite a difficult question to get asked,” she told Sky News.
“It is really tough to think back on that,” she added. “I find it really difficult to think that Aidan’s life isn’t seen as valuable as his older brother’s. It makes me worry as to whether he’ll be seen the same or treated the same.”
Lea-Wilson said that the law’s injustice rests in how it necessarily diminishes the value of the lives of those with disabilities. “I have two sons, and I love and value them equally. I think it just seems really wrong that the law doesn’t value them equally, and we want to change that,” she said. “I also really worry that when he’s older, if this law is still in place, how will that make him feel. That he’s not as valuable? That he doesn’t have equal worth?”
Heidi Crowter has joined Lea-Wilson in this lawsuit. “We are all equally valued, and I am someone who has Down syndrome, and it makes me feel upset, rejected by society, and looked down on. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t exist in this world,” she told Sky News.
The U.K. policy tracks with the laws of most European countries, which tend to have more-restrictive abortion policies than the U.S. does but to offer blanket exceptions when fetuses are diagnosed with disabilities. Just a few years ago, for instance, CBS News reported that Iceland has used a combination of increased prenatal testing and abortion to come close to “eradicating Down syndrome births.” Only one or two children with Down syndrome are born in Iceland each year.
In the U.S., the abortion rate for fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome seems to be lower, but there exists no limit on such abortions, and abortion-rights proponents vigorously oppose restrictions of any kind on abortion, including disability-based or sex-selective abortion.
Perhaps most disturbing, defenders of selective abortion insist that it is often more compassionate to choose abortion in these cases and spare children the suffering of a life with disabilities. In their zeal to expunge pain, they appropriate the terrible power to determine which lives have meaning and which are meaningless — which people, in short, are better off dead.
These debates over disability-based abortion are not about disabilities only. They are, in the end, about the logic of abortion, about a worldview that privileges the strong over the weak, that grants license to exercise dominion against the vulnerable, that gives some human beings the power to declare their brothers and sisters less than human, their lives not worth living.