The unbelievably discriminatory debate that gave us Section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act

Later this week, the House of Lords will debate the Disability Equality Bill at its Second Reading.

In 1967, Peers debated the passage of would become the Abortion Act 1967, three months before it received Royal Assent and became law. Their deliberations included section 1(1)(b), the sub-section that would become section 1(1)(d), the provision on abortion for disability.

During these debates, comments were made and language used that showed the extreme anti-disabled attitudes of the time. This was the context in which the current law was written.

Throughout the debate, children with disabilities were variously described by Peers as ‘mongols’, ‘spastics’, ‘monstrosities’, ‘abnormal’, ‘subnormal’, ‘retarded’, and ‘defective’. Other particular comments, however, are also revealing:

‘I am told that in cases of rubella there is a six to one chance that the child will be perfectly normal; and there is a further twenty to one chance that the abnormality will be minor. Even in cases where a child is born with disabilities, who can forget that poignant letter from the four spastics which appeared in the Daily Telegraph when we were discussing this subject on an earlier occasion?’

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

‘There are unquestionably some pædiatricians who would say that in cases involving the risk of gross abnormality a proportion of one in ten certainly represented a grave and substantial risk. To me, it is horrifying that ten infants can be destroyed because there is a risk of one of them being gravely deformed. I am wondering whether this aspect of the matter has been sufficiently examined, and is sufficiently known.

I seem to remember that on one occasion during the last debates on this subject the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, agreed that there might be a number of healthy children—“healthy pre-children”, I think he would have called them—disposed of in order that the risk of one grave deformity might be avoided’.

The Earl of Lytton

‘There has been widespread agreement, even among those who are not prepared to vote for the Second Reading of the Bill, that the Bill is wise, proper and enlightened, in so far as it concerns the life, health and happiness of the mother. Need we draw the line at the mother? Should we not take into account the same sort of considerations when considering whether an unborn child should be born? Is it not right that, subject to all necessary safeguards, a life should be prevented from coming into existence if it is going to be handicapped and unhappy?

Lord Moulson

‘I am not one of those polemical abortionists. I am a normal pampered husband, four times a happy grandfather—quite a normal kind of person. I feel some abhorrence at the possibility that if these Amendments are carried we shall be countenancing the bringing into the world of children who are destined to be malformed from the moment of their birth and who are likely to be a great problem and a great worry to their parents. I am not disputing for a moment statements that have been made on behalf of parents who say that they love those children. I know they do, but I know also the other side of the question.

The girl that my son married—he is not sitting on the Steps tonight, so I can go into family affairs—was for some years a nurse in a hospital where these little malformed children are cared for. I always thought that she was doing most noble work. But these were little children in respect of whom the parents had said,“We do not want to continue caring for them, no matter how much we love them. Let us get them off our hands”’.

Lord Leatherland

‘I have had to-day a letter from a gynæcologist, whom I do not know… I have made inquiries, and he is a man of the highest reputation. I should like to read one of the sentences he says about this Bill, which he heads, “The eugenic clause”. He says: “This is the most disturbing aspect of the Bill, and is medically quite unjustifiable. No obstetrician, faced with a Mongol at birth or say ten weeks before birth, would envisage destroying it rather than caring for it. The same applies to a spastic baby, or a rhesus baby (with its known high risk of permanent brain damage in the severe case) or the thalidomide baby, or the accidentally irradiated baby, or the deaf baby from rubella. Even worse, these conditions are not predictable and some not yet diagnosable before birth so that the condition is a statistical risk implying the destruction of more normals than abnormals. This clause worries a large number of us more than any other”’.

Lord Barrington

‘A great deal of argument on sociological grounds has been made this evening about the question of the existing children. I agree there is not a great deal to be said on that question under this Bill. But, certainly looked at from this point of view, looked at from the point of view of the fact that the other children will be neglected, because the mother has to look after and devote her entire time to an abnormal child, this question seems to me much more potent. I therefore sincerely hope that the Bill will go through complete with paragraph (b)’.

Lord Somers

The chance of handicapped children being born will be increased if we take paragraph (b) out of the Bill’.

Lord Byers

‘After careful thought I believe that we should have something in the Bill relating to subnormality… because I think that if parents could be sure that their child would be mentally handicapped they would have a right to an abortion’.

Lord Grenfell

‘I think it will be disastrous if we were to allow paragraph (b) to be deleted from the Bill. It is an essential part of it; it is of vital importance to the family, to the mother and, what is more, to society—because no one can think it is good for the community that one mother should go on bearing mentally deficient children’.

Baroness Elliott of Harwood

‘We are living in an age of planned families and, presumably, that woman and her husband have decided how many children they intend to have. What she is doing is not sacrificing one life; she is exchanging the possibility of a good life, a normal life, for a handicapped child, because when she has recovered from her abortion she will have another pregnancy if she wants to increase her family’.

Baroness Stocks

‘I feel that at present the medical profession—and they have stated so themselves—are not in a position to give a sufficiently accurate diagnosis of the fœtus at the time when it may legitimately be removed to allow us to have a clear conscience in this matter. It is terrible to think that we would sacrifice two, or three, healthy babies because we think—though we do not know—that there may be a deformed child.

It puts me in mind of our general outlook in legal matters, that people are innocent until they are proved guilty. Here, apparently, five children are to be judged guilty, as it were, though they may be innocent, for the sake of one. It is almost as if you stood five people in a row and shot them because you could not make up your mind and had not sufficient evidence as to which of them was guilty. It is quite out of any sort of proportion’.

Baroness Emmet

‘A great many people, in this House and outside were surprised when the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in his eloquent speech on Second Reading, referred to euthanasia. They did not quite see how it related to this subject. Are not the people in favour of paragraph (b) as it now stands failing to face up to the fact that what they want is a form of euthanasia?—not in the interests of the mother, because there is no question of risk to her health.

Are they not saying, “There is one chance in three of this child being born wholly abnormal—a monstrosity. It is not right to take this chance. The child might be a perfectly normal human being, but because there is one chance in three, or one chance in four, that it might not be, it must be destroyed without being born”? Are they not arguing that because they dare not come forward and say, “Wait to see when the child is born whether it is a monstrosity or normal, and if it is a monstrosity, destroy it”?

If they came before this House or the other House with that argument, I should respect their arguments more, because they would be frank and clear. But that is not what they are seeking to do by paragraph (b), as it stands. What they are seeking to do by paragraph (b) is not to see whether the child is a monstrosity, abnormal, the kind of child to which Lady Gaitskell so eloquently referred, but, if there is any substantial risk of that being the consequence, not to give that fœtus the chance of becoming a normal human being’.

Viscount Dilhorne

I do not like to say it, but, if one had to choose, I think I would much prefer infanticide to the provision in the Bill as it stands at the moment—I mean decent infanticide, decently done, immediately, in the case of a monstrosity’.

Baroness Wootton of Arbinger

Aside from a couple of these statements, which rightly point out the nature of what is being argued for, most of them show the antipathy towards disability, the callousness towards children with disabilities, and the hopelessness as to their human potential and potential for happiness, that prevailed at the time when the Abortion Act was passed.

We’ve moved on. The law hasn’t. It’s time it did.