John Hayes

Abortions for minor disabilities need to stop

Abortions for minor disabilities need to stop
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There is no doubt that the way disability is regarded in Britain has changed for the better. People with disabilities now enjoy legal protections that 25 years ago were absent. Yet for all the progress, there remains a glaring omission: a shameful contradiction in the legal framework that gives life to disability equality. Since 1990, we have differentiated between those diagnosed with disabilities and their non-disabled contemporaries by allowing people with disabilities to be aborted right up to birth, whereas there is a time limit of 24 weeks for the non-disabled.

You might think we would have addressed this by now, given the increasingly positive shared view of disability. Most people rightly recognise that those with disabilities have as much to contribute as those without them. Yet fast-forward a decade from the Equality Act 2010 and the time-limit for abortion remains unchanged. While this different treatment is itself discriminatory, under the Abortion Act 1967 such ‘disabilities’ have been taken to include cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot; conditions that are treatable after birth. Between 2006 and 2010, 157 babies were aborted for cleft lip and palate in England and Wales, and 205 were aborted for club foot, according to Eurocrat data.

What’s more, the situation is now arguably worse than it was a decade ago. Why? Because the government has taken remarkable steps to impose disability-selective abortion – up to birth – in Northern Ireland, following the three-year absence of a working assembly at Stormont. The framework proposed by Westminster far exceeds the legal requirement to implement abortion on the limited grounds of a threat posed to the mother’s physical and mental health, rape, incest, or – in the case of the unborn baby – having a life-limiting disability, meaning they would die either in utero or almost immediately after birth. Enacting legislation that directly creates inequalities is not only unethical, but also unwise. To take this course is to embed the cruel assumption that people born with even minor disabilities, that can be easily treated, do not deserve the chance of life. What message does this send to our friends and family members living with these kinds of conditions? And what does it say to, and about, our 13.9 million compatriots who live with a disability? In the case of cleft lip and palate and club foot, the edict is that those with imperfections, which mean they fail to match up to our image-obsessed society’s aesthetic ideal, don’t belong.

Heidi Crowter, a woman with Down’s syndrome from Coventry, has highlighted the shameful reality of disability-selective abortion, showing that current legislation singles out those with disabilities who otherwise could live happy, successful lives. Sir Walter Scott, Dudley Moore, Steven Gerrard and Tom Burke were all diagnosed with club foot or cleft palate. Did they not all go on to live fulfilling lives? Yet according to current UK law, many with these conditions do not deserve the same gift of life as their peers without diagnosed conditions. Every child, whether or not they can be seen, and whether or not he or she has a cleft lip or club foot, deserves their chance of what Chesterton called: 'The supreme adventure' of life.

Positive changes in how we regard disability and how our regard is reflected in law must now extend to abortion policy and practice. Fiona Bruce MP will soon propose legislation intended to do just that. Her Abortion (Cleft Lip, Cleft Palate and Clubfoot) Bill aims to amend the Abortion Act 1967 to ensure that cleft lip, cleft palate, and club foot are not grounds for abortion in the UK. A person born with a disability is as valuable and precious as any other. Laws suggesting otherwise must be changed now.