Disability advocacy group Don’t Screen Us Out are calling on the Government to urgently clarify that abortion for Down’s syndrome will not be introduced to Northern Ireland.
The Government have released a consultation on proposed abortion regulations for Northern Ireland.
The consultation document outlines that abortion will be available:
- Through to either 22 or 24 weeks on ‘mental health’ grounds. This will likely in practice allow for abortion on request for any reason, which will include condition such as Down’s syndrome.
- Through to birth for ‘fetal abnormality’ providing that “The fetus if born would suffer a severe impairment, including a mental or physical disability which is likely to significantly limit either the length or quality of the child’s life”.
In England and Wales, the Abortion Act outlines restrictive wording* which is similar, but in practice this has allowed for abortion for conditions including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot right through to birth. So it is likely that under the proposed wording in the framework, without a clear provision stating otherwise, abortion will be available in practice through to birth for Down’s syndrome.
Currently, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed and therefore, extremely rare. Figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland show that while 52 children with Down’s syndrome were born in 2016, in the same year only one child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.
In the rest of the UK, however, the latest statistics show that 90% of babies found to have Down’s syndrome in the womb are aborted and abortion is allowed up to birth if a baby has a congenital condition, including Down’s syndrome.
Lord Shinkwin, an advocate for disability equality, has also previously strongly denounced the plans to introduce disability-selective abortion to Northern Ireland, and noted that currently, “Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability”.
Shinkwin said that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends a message to the people of Northern Ireland and to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland that people who are born with a disability “are better off dead.”
Over 900 people with Down’s syndrome and their families signed an open letter to, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May calling on her to not introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland when the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill was progressing through Parliament.
* ‘that 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’
Lynn Murray, spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out, said:
“We are calling on the Government to urgently clarify that they will not introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland. All that is required is for the Government to commit to add a simple provision to the abortion framework that will clearly outline that abortion for Down’s syndrome will explicitly not be allowed.
The Government were not required by Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 to introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland. Sadly it appears that they have decided to go further than they are required to do by the Act and have opted to introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland in their proposed legal framework.
If the Government are not prepared to make a change to the framework to ensure abortion for Down’s syndrome is not introduced, they need to confirm this publically and make it clear that their intention is to introduce abortion for disability-selective Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland.
The proposed framework would likely lead to a big increase in abortion for congenital conditions detected pre-birth in Northern Ireland, and would reduce the numbers of our already very small community. This would have a devastating impact on the community of people with Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland.
Our attitude towards people with disabilities has changed and our laws must reflect that.”
For more information on the Don’t Screen Us Out campaign, see our website www.dontscreenusout.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For interviews, contact Don’t Screen Us Out spokesperson Lynn Murray on 0784 0966 736 or email email@example.com
Link to sign the open letter: https://dontscreenusout.org/openletterni/
Past coverage of parents of children with Down’s syndrome speaking out about the law change in Northern Ireland:
Full text of Lord Shinkwin’s speech in the House of Lords, 15th July 2019, is available here.
Video of Lord Shinkwin’s speech here.