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Woman with Down’s syndrome’s landmark case against UK Govt over discriminatory abortion law to be heard by Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal has announced that it will be hearing a landmark case against the UK Government over the current discriminatory abortion law that allows abortion up to birth for Down’s syndrome.
Heidi Crowter, a 26-year-old woman from Coventry who has Down’s syndrome, together with Máire Lea-Wilson from Brentford, West London, whose two-year-old son Aidan has Down’s syndrome, is challenging the UK Government over a disability clause in the current law.
Heidi Crowter is a self-advocate who has campaigned for the last five years for equal treatment for those with Down’s syndrome in all areas of life.
Máire Lea-Wilson was placed under pressure to have an abortion when a 34-week scan revealed her son had Down’s syndrome.
Heidi and her team have crowdfunded over £125,000 for the case.
Currently in England, Wales and Scotland, there is a general 24-week time limit for abortion, but if the baby has a disability, including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot, abortion is legal right up to birth.
There were 3,083 disability-selective abortions in 2020. 693 of these abortions were due to babies being diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, an increase of 5.64% from 656 in 2019. The actual figures are likely to be much higher – a 2013 review showed 886 fetuses were aborted for Down’s syndrome in England and Wales in 2010 but only 482 were reported in Department of Health records. The underreporting was confirmed by a 2014 Department of Health review.
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has consistently criticised countries that provide for abortion on the basis of disability.
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland made a key recommendation that the UK change its abortion law so that it does not single out babies with disabilities. The Government has decided to ignore this recommendation.
The Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) has said that this aspect of the Abortion Act “is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability…[and] is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally”.
The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion for Disability found the vast majority of those who gave evidence believed allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of disability is discriminatory, contrary to the spirit of the Equality Act 2010 and that it affects wider public attitudes towards discrimination. The Inquiry recommended Parliament reviews the question of allowing abortion on the grounds of disability and should consider repealing section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act which allows for it.
Disabled peer Lord Shinkwin proposed a Bill in the House of Lords that would have repealed section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act – the Bill was undefeated but unfortunately ran out of time. The Bill was supported by Disability Rights UK.
Boris Johnson’s Government introduced new abortion regulations to Northern Ireland last March. The regulations that the Northern Ireland Office introduced allow abortion up to birth for disabilities including Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot. 1,875 people with Down’s syndrome and their families signed a letter to Boris Johnson urging him to ensure that selective abortion for Down’s syndrome was not introduced to Northern Ireland. Westminster recently approved regulations that give the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, power to compel the Northern Ireland Executive to commission full abortion services across Northern Ireland.
Polling has shown that the majority of people in England, Wales and Scotland feel that disability should not be a grounds for abortion at all, with only one in three people thinking it is acceptable to ban abortion for gender or race but allow it for disability.
Heidi and her legal team have set up a CrowdJustice crowdfunding page to help raise funds for legal proceedings, pay for legal advice and prepare for the case. To find out more and to make a contribution to the next stage of the case visit:www.crowdjustice.com/case/downrightdiscrimination/
Heidi Crowter, from Coventry, who has Down’s syndrome said:
“The law says that babies shouldn’t be aborted up to birth, but if a baby is found to have Down’s syndrome, it can be aborted up until birth. This is the current law in the UK and I think it’s not fair.
People like me are considered to be ‘seriously handicapped’, but I think using that phrase for a clause in abortion law is so out of date.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently said that the United Kingdom should change its abortion law to make sure that people like me aren’t singled out because of our disabilities but the Government hasn’t changed the law.
So, last year, me and other members of the Down’s syndrome community set out to get rid of the clause in the law, and now our case will soon be heard in the Court of Appeal.
I hope we win. People shouldn’t be treated differently because of their disabilities, it’s downright discrimination.”
Ms Lea-Wilson, 33, an accountant from Brentford, West London and mother to Aidan who has Down’s syndrome said:
“I am thrilled to hear that the case will be heard by the Court of Appeal, and I hope that this will be the time that we all stand up for equality.
I have two sons that I love and value equally, but the law does not value them equally. This is wrong and so we want to try and change that.
My motivation for taking this joint legal action with Heidi has always been simple. As a mother, I will do all that I can to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of my son, Aidan. Throughout the last year since joining the case, it has become ever increasingly clear to me that Section 1(1)d of the Abortion Act, which differentiates the time limit for abortion, sets the tone for discrimination against people with Down’s syndrome which starts before they are born and continues throughout their life with devastating consequences.
What does this law say to people like my son? That his life isn’t as valuable as his older brothers? How will that make him feel? How will I explain it to him? This case is not about the rights or wrongs of abortion, it has always been about removing a specific instance of inequality of the law, whereby for a child without a disability the legal limit for abortion is 24 weeks, but you can have an abortion right up to full term with a child that does have a disability. We proclaim that we live in a society which values those with disabilities, that everyone deserves a fair and equal chance at life, regardless of their ability status. This law undermines that narrative, does it really have a place in 2022?
Aidan is 2 now, and he amazes me. He makes us laugh every single day. He has shown us so much about joy, tenacity and the inextricable worth of life. I wouldn’t change a single thing about him.”
Lynn Murray, spokesperson for Don’t Screen Us Out and mother of Rachel who has Down’s syndrome, said:
“By stating that disability is grounds for termination, section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act, promotes inequality.
The provision in the Abortion Act harks back to a time when we thought it was better for people with disabilities not to be part of our society. We’re a far more progressive society now, we realise that diversity is healthy, and all of our laws should 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 07840 966 736 or email email@example.com
- High-resolution photos of Don’t Screen Us Out events which can be used by the media are available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dontscreenusout/albums
- Heidi’s Facebook page:
- Previous news coverage featuring Heidi Crowter:
- Sky News – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qz0pU7TKqb0
- Victoria Derbyshire Show – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeNuWj3xhbM
- Channel 5 News – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeNuWj3xhbM
- Down’s syndrome abortion figures are expected to increase as NIPT is rolled out across hospitals on the NHS. The number of babies born with Down’s syndrome has dropped by 30% in NHS hospitals that have introduced the new test.