Baroness Stroud speaks in support of the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill

My Lords, I am pleased to support the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill and I commend my noble friend Lord Shinkwin for bringing it forward. As a parent and a friend to mothers who have disabled children, I appreciate that this is a hugely difficult and sensitive subject, whichever way one approaches it. However, the arguments about the value, contribution and importance of people with disabilities are just too important for me to remain silent.

The Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin accomplishes two very important objectives. First, it restores equality to the face of our legislation, as set out in the Abortion Act 1967. The issue of Section 1(1)(d) being discriminatory was indeed raised, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, by the Disability Rights Commission soon after its creation in August 2001, when it stated that,

“it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability; and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally … In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally”.

When I first found that that clause existed in the Abortion Act, I was really surprised. I struggled to understand how a British society that seeks to value disabled people in every way and is a world leader on the issue of disability equality could behave so differently in its approach to a disabled baby in the womb, allowing abortion up to birth for disability. For every other situation, it is permitted only up to 24 weeks, unless the life of the mother is at risk.

In some ways even more troubling, however, is that disability, which is a protected characteristic in UK law, should be a basis for abortion at all. Lest anyone should be tempted to think that one can be discriminatory in a confined abortion context and not have it spill out into life beyond the womb, the evidence received by the Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability in 2013 is less than reassuring. The representative of the British Academy of Childhood Disability stated:

“Parents I have spoken to have said that Doctors treating their children with Down’s Syndrome”,

as we have already heard,

“criticised them for not having abortions, saying their children will not have a good life”.

Another said:

“I have already come across people who view my choice to have my child as detrimental to the rest of society”.

That has certainly been my experience, as one of my friends went through this process. There are mutterings at the school gates, and people asking, “Why did they choose to have that baby?” gets into our attitude as a society. All those accounts are available in the inquiry’s report, which is in the House of Lords Library. I am afraid that this is an inevitable consequence of the law endorsing the idea that abortion on the grounds of disability is perfectly acceptable.

The second crucial objective that the Bill fulfils relates very specifically to the consulting room. One way in which the message of our current legislation is communicated is through those charged with responsibility for its implementation. If disability were not a ground for abortion, doctors would not mention it. However, the fact that it is means that doctors will, quite properly, inform a mother carrying a child with a disability that she should or could have an abortion. However, a significant number of parents say that that puts very real pressure on them to have an abortion. Again, the inquiry into abortion on the grounds of disability heard some very concerning evidence. One mother said that she felt she was treated differently because she was carrying a disabled baby. Another said that she experienced some disdain from medical professionals for deciding to keep her baby.

Indeed, you can see the effect of the law on decision-making and the approach to abortion by looking at the latest statistics. Between 2005 and 2015 the abortion rate in Great Britain, as we have heard, remained largely constant, decreasing very slightly by 0.3%, but between 2005 and 2015 the rate for abortion on grounds of disability up to birth rose by 68%. If this were any other group with any other protected characteristic, we would be seriously concerned.

The contrast between approaches to abortion of the able-bodied and abortion of the disabled is deeply concerning. It provides yet another reason why the Bill of my noble friend Lord Shinkwin should become law. Of course, the Bill will not mean that if a mother discovers at any point up to her last 21-week scan that her baby is disabled, the option of abortion will not still be open to her up to 24 weeks. It would obviously remain so.

As we have heard, that point was recently confirmed through a legal opinion issued by Hugh Preston QC on the Shinkwin Bill. It states that it is,

“succinct and limited in its scope. If enacted, it would remove s. 1(1)(d) of the Act completely. It follows that the practical effect of abolishing s. 1(1)(d) of the Act, is that any abortions by reason of disability will need to be carried out within the first 24 weeks subject to s. 1(1)(a) of the Act, unless there is a risk of serious permanent damage to the mother, in which case they will remain permissible until birth. Thus, abortions by reason of disability will remain permissible, but subject to the same safeguards as apply in any other case”.

Crucially, however, the provision of the Bill expressly removes discrimination from the face of our legislation.

Our Abortion Act would send out the message that disabled lives are worthy of protection equal to that afforded to able-bodied lives. This legislation is overdue and I very much hope that the Government will take their equalities responsibilities in this matter seriously and support the Bill.