The Don’t Screen Us Out campaign, a coalition of Down’s syndrome advocacy groups, have praised a speech made by Lord Shinkwin in the House of Lords last night against the Government’s plans to draft secondary legislation that would introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland. They are urging the Government not to introduce any such legislation that would allow for babies with Down’s syndrome to be selectively aborted in Northern Ireland.
The debate centred around the abortion clause in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill that the Government have made clear they plan to redraft in order to introduce a major change to abortion law in Northern Ireland. This change would introduce abortion for babies with Down’s syndrome right through to 28-weeks gestation.
Lord Shinkwin, an advocate for disability equality, strongly denounced the Government’s plan 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 urged the Government to consider the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland and to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland. The message the Bill sends to people who are born with a disability, he said, is that “you are better off dead”.
Currently, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion is 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 UK, the latest statistics show that there were 618 abortions for Down’s syndrome in England and Wales in 2018. This now brings it to a 42% increase in abortion for Down’s syndrome in the last ten years with figures rising from 436 in 2008.
Lynn Murray, spokeswoman for the Don’t Screen Us Out campaign said:
“As a mother of a young person who has Down’s syndrome, it is deeply concerning to see the Government making plans to introduce abortion for Down’s syndrome to Northern Ireland, despite the leaps that advocacy groups have made in raising awareness in support of people with Down’s syndrome.
Abortion in the case of Down’s syndrome is still so commonplace and widespread in most parts of the UK, but Northern Ireland currently has a very different approach when a baby is found to have Down’s syndrome. Disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed by law and there is a culture of accepting and supporting people with disabilities rather than eliminating them.
This is reflected directly in recent official figures from 2016 showing that almost all babies found to have Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland are born. This greatly contrasts with the 90% termination rate for Down’s syndrome from other parts of the UK.
However, with the Government intent on introducing their own secondary legislation to introduce disability-selective abortion to Northern Ireland, there would likely be a steep increase in the numbers of children with Down’s syndrome screened out by termination unless there is an immediate intervention.”
- 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
- 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.
Full text of Lord Shinkwin’s speech in the House of Lords, 15th July 2019:
My Lords, I support Amendment 23…because I believe it underlines our respect for devolution and for the people of Northern Ireland, a clear majority of whom, polling shows, as we have already heard, do not want law changes imposed on them by us here in London.
I also support it for another reason. I do not take a position on abortion per se; I do, however, take a position on disability equality. What is proposed in the Bill drives a coach and horses through disability equality. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—indeed, whether anyone in the Government or in No. 10—has considered the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devoted parents and families of disabled children and, most importantly, to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability. If the Bill is passed, that will change overnight on 21 October.
I invite noble Lords to consider the Bill from the perspective of someone with Down’s syndrome. In England and Wales, the latest available figures show that 90% of human beings diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Today, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed. Instead, the culture is one of welcome and support for this disability. The latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland showed 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.
I ask my noble friend the Minister: is that not a cause for celebration? Is it not to Northern Ireland’s immense credit that disability equality is actually respected there? He may be aware that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the most important social justice milestone of the 20th century for disabled people: the Disability Discrimination Act. A Conservative Government introduced it. How does he reconcile the Act’s acknowledgement of the right of disabled human beings to be equal, to contribute to society and to be respected with the message of the Bill, which is that if you are born with a disability, as I was, you are better off dead? For that is its message to disabled human beings, their families and the people of Northern Ireland.
That is why it is so sad that the party which swore to respect Northern Ireland is driving roughshod over the clearly expressed views of the majority of its people to impose lethal discrimination on grounds of disability and to treat human beings diagnosed with disability before birth as less equal. How terribly progressive, my Lords.
I wonder who has the greater learning disability here: those who seem intent on denying the equal right to exist to those such as human beings with Down’s syndrome or those, especially in my party, who appear determined to unlearn the lessons of the Disability Discrimination Act.
I was born disabled; I will die disabled. That is the hand I have been dealt. Indeed, it is the hand that most of us are likely to be dealt before our days are done. Are we seriously saying, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, with all the amazing advances in medicine and technology, that we are so regressive, so insecure as a species, that we cannot cope with disability?
Various commentators report that the Prime Minister wants to leave a strong legacy. I am sure I am not the only Member of your Lordships’ House who will remember her speech committing herself and her Government to ending burning injustices. I will therefore take the opportunity to urge her not to create a burning injustice by allowing the abortion of human beings diagnosed before birth with conditions such as mine to be part of that message. If she does, no one in my party should be surprised if disabled people and their families think that the Conservative Party hates us and believes that we would be better off dead.
In conclusion, there is a clear choice to be made, and not just by my party. The choice is for disability equality or inequality. I implore all noble Lords who believe in genuine equality to stand with disabled human beings in Northern Ireland and respect them, and devolution, by supporting this amendment.