A Bill introduced by a severely disabled Peer to end disability-selective abortion has received its Second Reading in the House of Lords, with near unanimous support from Peers.
Lord Shinkwin’s Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill will now proceed to the Committee Stage.
If successful, the Bill will remove section 1(1)(d) from the 1967 Abortion Act, which allows for abortion on the grounds of disability up-to-birth. In the UK, disability-selective abortions are currently available right up to the moment of birth whereas in most cases, ‘healthy’ babies cannot be aborted beyond 24 weeks.
The net effect of this Bill would be that the 24-week time limit would apply to all babies regardless of disability, as a woman would still be able to obtain an abortion on other grounds detailed in the 1967 Act.
Speaking at the debate, Lord Shinkwin said:
“From this disabled person’s perspective, there is a stark anomaly, an inconsistency in the law, whereby discrimination on grounds of disability is both prohibited in law after birth yet, confusingly, actually enshrined in law at the very point at which the discrimination begins, at source, before birth.”
“I would be better off dead because of serious handicap, to use the outdated terminology of the Act. I regard my Private Member’s Bill as a modest, reasonable and logical correction of that anomaly in the law to bring it into line with the thrust and spirit of existing disability discrimination and equality legislation.”
“I am your equal. I will not be defined by my disability.”
Speaking at the debate, Baroness Stroud, said:
“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[.]”
Speaking at the debate, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, said:
“I speak as someone who happens to be profoundly disabled from an in utero problem. I would very much have avoided being discarded before birth if I had had any opportunity to comment on it.”
“Yet here we are discussing the discarding almost at the moment of birth a potentially valuable human being who might go on to win a gold medal in the Paralympics. Is not there a hypocrisy here that needs significantly to be addressed and discussed?”
“It is time that we woke up to the fact that we are hypocrites on disability.”
Speaking at the debate, Lord Elton, said:
“He said that he believed the Bill was modest and reasonable. That is a perfect description of its progenitor—modest and reasonable.”
Speaking at the debate, Viscount Bridgeman said:
“He is supported by a huge body of outside evidence from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Commission and the UK report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
Speaking at the debate, Lord Alton of Liverpool said:
“Paradoxically, we will campaign and raise our voices for wheelchair ramps to be placed on public buildings but fail to uphold the innate right to life itself of the disabled person who uses that wheelchair.”
“Paradoxically, in seeking to eradicate these wonderful individuals from the human race, it suggests that it is we who have the problem, not them. What does it say to the survivors—those who have been inconsiderate enough to avoid the perfection test and have somehow managed to slip through the net?”
Angie Emrys-Jones, mother of Ted who has Down’s syndrome said:
“The Bill is an opportunity for society to stop and reflect. There may not be another time when as a society we can pause, consider and debate whether we think it is acceptable to discriminate against people like my son. There should be an ethical debate on this, and if our system doesn’t allow it, then it must be broken.’’
Joanna Jepson, who was born with a congenital jaw defect and mounted a legal challenge to the disability-selective abortion of a 28-week-old fetus in 2001, said:
“Our laws reflect what we value and believe is good and ethical. For a country that works to demonstrate so pervasively that we believe in equality for all, no matter what disabilities people live with, it is incomprehensible that we allow this ignorant and inhumane discrimination to take place.”
Dr Elizabeth Corcoran, spokesperson for the We’re All Equal campaign, said:
‘’It is time for a national discussion on disability equality. As a society that has disability equality written into law it is high time that we had an informed discussion and vote on whether it is acceptable to abort a child with a disability on the one hand, while not allowing it on the grounds of gender on the other. The reasoning that makes abortion illegal on the grounds of gender should apply to those with a disability also’’.
Professor Sue Buckley OBE, Director of Science and Research at Down’s Syndrome Education International, said:
“This debate is long overdue. We don’t believe that a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome should be a reason for termination. Nobody has discussed it with adults with Down’s syndrome, many of whom can now read and understand the issues and realise that as a group there is a large proportion, particularly in the medical community, who think their lives are not worth living. There has never been a public ethical debate. I think there definitely ought to be a debate.”
Notes to editors:
- For interviews, phone We’re All Equal spokeswoman Dr Elizabeth Corcoran: (+44) 7731 670632, Email: email@example.com
- Video footage of the speeches from the debate are available here: https://goo.gl/ckG1dM
- A full transcript of the debate is available here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2016-10-21/debates/9B082E9E-8E7A-469B-8864-2D14FB44CCE2/Abortion(DisabilityEquality)Bill(HL)
- Lord Shinkwin’s Bill is backed by the We’re All Equal campaign, which includes disabled people, their families and supporters. The group wants the Prime Minister to commit now to making time for the Bill to complete its Lords stages so it can be voted on by MPs in the Commons. They are encouraging people to visit their website to write to their MP. For more information on the We’re All Equal campaign and further facts, statistics and details on why there needs to be a change in the law visit www.allequal.org.uk
- The Bill arrives at a time of intense media debate about the ethics of screening for disabilities following the Sally Phillips’s BBC documentary, A World Without Down’s Syndrome?
- 2015 marked the highest year on record for disability selective-abortions, with 3,213 being carried out in England and Wales – representing a 68% increase in the last 10 years.
- Disability-selective abortion numbers have seen a sharp increase in recent years. There were 230 late term disability-selective abortions (between 24 weeks and birth) in 2015 – a 271% increase since 1995. In 2014 the number of terminations for Down’s syndrome increased by more than 10% in the space of just 12 months as new screening techniques became available privately. Whilst abortions for cleft lip/palate, a minor facial impairment, have tripled in the last 5 years.
- A 2014 Department of Health review identified that there is significant underreporting of disability-selective abortions and the numbers are likely to be much higher.
- The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have also consistently criticised countries which provide for abortion in a way which distinguishes between foetuses on the basis of disability, most notably Austria, Hungary and Spain, citing Article 5 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- The Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) have said 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.
- Lord Shinkwin’s speech in the chamber introducing the Bill is available here. Lord Shinkwin’s speech calling on the Government to support his Bill is available here.
- An account of specific discriminatory language from the 1967 Hansard debate when MPs and peers introduced abortion for disability is available here.